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Senate Republicans throw cold water on $35 million school safety proposal

Denver Post file

A proposal to spend $35 million to improve school safety faces an uncertain future in the Colorado Senate.

The Colorado House of Representatives amended the 2018-19 budget last week to add a major allocation for school resource officers and physical upgrades to improve campus security. The amount was a bipartisan compromise in response to Republican proposals that reached as high as $50 million for school safety. The proposal drew pushback from some Democrats who fear increasing police presence in communities of color.

On Monday, as the Senate prepares to take up the budget, Republican members of the Joint Budget Committee didn’t exactly embrace the idea.

State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a committee member from Berthoud, said the House “blew the lid off” the balanced budget that lawmakers began with last week and that he expects the Senate to take “a more realistic perspective.”

State Sen. Kent Lambert, the Colorado Springs Republican who serves as vice chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said that committee members already included $7 million for school safety in the budget and appropriated that amount in balance with a lot of other needs.

Lambert questioned exactly how the House proposal would be spent in schools. Training a school resource officer is a one-time expense, but employing a school resource officer is an ongoing one. The House proposal is a one-time allocation made in the context of full coffers that might not continue into future years. A “more holistic” approach might require multi-year funding, he said.

This doesn’t mean there will be no increase in funding for school security in the 2018-19 budget. Joint Budget Committee members are obligated to defend the budget they wrote from amendments in their respective chambers. However, Lambert said it is “a legitimate question whether something that large is going to be supported in the Senate.” Whatever amount is agreed upon, there will need to be a bill that lays out the allowed uses and the process for distributing it.

Meanwhile, advocacy organizations are gearing up to oppose more money for school resource officers. Padres & Jovenes Unidos sent out an urgent action alert after the House vote.

“Student safety is of the utmost importance, but the impulse to further police schools will not prevent further tragedies, and is immensely damaging to our communities,” the group wrote. “We have to fundamentally rethink safety by centering the social, emotional, and mental health needs of young people and providing schools and communities with the resources and supports necessary to address the root causes of issues that are driving their pain, trauma and isolation.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee will strip out all the House amendments to send the Senate the same starting budget that the House received last week. The state Senate will debate its own amendments Wednesday and Thursday this week. The Joint Budget Committee will then be responsible for reconciling the differences between the House and Senate amendments.

Lundberg noted that school districts already are getting a $150 million increase in the 2018-19 budget and can spend it on security improvements if that’s a local priority. State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, made the same point last week on the House floor.

Are school resource officers and security upgrades a priority of Colorado’s school leaders? The Colorado School Finance Project has been asking superintendents around the state how they would spend additional school funding and tweeting their answers.

Some of them did, in fact, name school security as a top concern.

A far greater number, though, prioritized higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, and mental health help for students.

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