Education

The Kentucky General Assembly has passed a comprehensive bill to improve safety in public schools, but funding for the measure is still uncertain.

Leaders of the legislature have said the school safety bill — or Senate Bill 1 — was the General Assembly’s number one priority this session. It passed the Senate unanimously, and the House passed it with broad bipartisan support and a standing ovation.

Kentucky lawmakers started taking a closer look at school safety after a deadly shooting at Marshall County High School last January. The Parkland Florida shooting followed, and many other states began to write new school safety laws. Meanwhile, Kentucky lawmakers took their time.

“We didn’t take a knee jerk reaction last session,” said bill sponsor Senator Max Wise (R-Campbellsville). “We actually did this in a very deliberate and thoughtful manner.”

Wise sponsored the bill, and traveled across Kentucky holding town halls to gather input. He led the bill through revisions based on feedback. Wise says the bill’s approach is to both “harden and soften” schools.

“When we think about the hardening, we’re thinking about the infrastructure, you know, by looking at school resource officers,” Wise said. “The softening approach is the mental health approach — that’s trying to develop the relationships within the schools.”   

The bill affects all levels of school administration. Public schools would have to secure their entryways with electronic locks and intercoms. School districts would need to appoint safety coordinators. A new state school safety marshal would check in on progress. And the bill directs the Kentucky Department of Education to manage a tip-line for students to report threats.

And — perhaps most ambitiously — the bill seeks to put one trained school resource officer in every school and one guidance counselor for every 250 students.

“That’s exciting to me, but then, it’s also questionable, because where are we going to get this money from?” said Sarah Smith, the Safe Schools Coordinator at Bullitt County Public Schools.

Funding Is The Second Step

Various stakeholders — from the Kentucky School Boards Association, to the Kentucky Guidance Counselors Association, to youth advocates — support the bill, but they echo Smith’s concern.

As of now, the bill has no funding attached to it.

Some stakeholders say they worry the cost to implement the bill will fall in part on school districts, and hit less-wealthy, rural districts the hardest.

Smith says her district may not have as many resources as larger districts like Jefferson County Public Schools, but that it’s ahead of the curve when it comes to school safety measures. For one, the district already has a school safety coordinator, and it hired more school resource officers (SROs) last year.

“Within the past 6 months, we have increased the SROs within our county from four to now seven,” Smith said, adding that the district would need 16 more officers to place one in every school.

Many other districts would have farther to go to meet goals and mandates in the bill. State Commissioner of Education Wayne Lewis said all those new safety measures aren’t cheap.

“It’s going to be incredibly expensive,” Lewis told WFPL. “There’s a price tag on the state side, in terms of what the state is going to need to invest, and potentially there could be a price tag on the local district side as well.”

Fiscal analysts at the Legislative Research Commission studied the potential total cost and concluded it is indeterminable at this time. Senator Wise estimates the price tag at 35 million dollars or more, and he says he doesn’t want that to fall heavily on schools.

“We don’t want to push down unfunded mandates, that’s one of the things we do not wish to do,” Wise said.

The school safety bill specifically states the goal of hiring more counselors and police officers for schools is contingent on funding. But other costs could fall to school districts, depending on how much money the legislature provides.

Wise says he considers Senate Bill 1 the first of a two-part effort. The second part will come when the General Assembly considers the state budget and decides how much to put toward school safety.

Lewis said he hopes the legislature will come through.

“If we believe that the security of our kids, the safety, the social and emotional health and well-being of our kids is of paramount importance — and I believe we do — then it will require that we make a significant investment to that end,” Lewis said.

The bill now goes to the governor’s desk. If it becomes law, discussion of how to pay for it will head back to the General Assembly during next year’s budget session.

Liz Schlemmer is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.