April 20, 2013

Funding is hard to find for school security systems

School districts that prioritize safety must divert their own funds to make up for inadequate state funding.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

After a 20-year-old gunman shot and killed 20 children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school in December, authorities in Maine were forced to take a closer look at school security.

But now, as school budgets are being finalized in districts across the state, security wish-lists must be reconciled with the harsh new reality that costs traditionally borne by the state are shifting suddenly to local districts, and in turn, to taxpayers.

Gov. Paul LePage's proposed two-year budget moves $29 million of the state's $201 million teacher retirement costs to local schools, essentially flat-funds general purpose aid to education, and slashes municipal revenue sharing by nearly $200 million.

Still, school administrators have been forced to address security concerns even though they lack the financial resources to do so.

"The one thing that schools need to be are safe places," said Gary Smith, Superintendent at RSU 18, a four-year-old district that includes the schools of the former China and Messalonskee districts.

His district has lost $4.1 million in state aid over the last four years, and with it, dozens of jobs, and will lose 18 additional positions next year alone, Smith said at a March hearing in Augusta on the state's budget. At 3,150 students, his district is among the largest in the state.

Smith said he plans to use $25,000 from a $125,000 technology fund that is supposed to last four years -- money that otherwise would have bought equipment for classrooms -- to pay for surveillance cameras in five elementary schools.

"Sandy Hook has changed what schools are going to be like for quite a while," he said, "We, like many schools, are struggling on how to put a budget together in a tough financial landscape."

In RSU 3, which serves 11 communities in Waldo County, a roof-repair project has been put on hold to pay for about $22,000 worth of security upgrades that include additional panic buttons and a motion alarm system, said Superintendent Heather Perry.

It will complement about 18 months of work already done to make the district's facilities more safe, Perry said. That work included reconfigured exterior doors, panic buttons, and security cameras at elementary schools.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said his schools have been upgraded over the last five years to a remote buzzer entry system, but that other improvements remain to be made. Webster said about $250,000 in upgrades are included in the city's capital improvement program, costs that will not affect the annual school budget.

Other, more immediate improvements were identified through a committee process following Sandy Hook, he said, including installation of interior door locks in all classrooms. The equipment purchases will be paired with more frequent lockdown drills, he said.

"We made the commitment that regardless of our budget situation that these would be completed no later than the beginning of the next school year," Webster said.

In Greater Portland, Gorham schools may have made the most dramatic choice between safety measures and educational programming, opting to approve security spending instead of a roughly $500,000 plan to implement all-day kindergarten. The school district decided to spend part of $300,000 in building improvement money on security, and the town council also approved $245,000 for security upgrades.

In South Portland, $29,761 is slated to pay for electronic door-locking mechanisms, video cameras, and intercom systems at the district's elementary schools. North Yarmouth and Cumberland spent $270,000 on cameras and specialized door locks, more than five times what was originally planned.

Federal grants have helped some Maine school districts address their security needs. A grant for school security helped Yarmouth schools reformulate their preparedness plans. The $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to the Yarmouth Police Department funded the planning, which led to restrictions on who may have access to electronic school building keys.

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