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Our View: Legislature must make school safety a priority

October 12, 2018

The Rochester Public School District has expressed gratitude to the Minnesota Department of Education after learning that the district will receive about $287,000 in state funds to improve the security systems at Franklin Elementary and the Alternative Learning Center.

Make no mistake, these grants are good news. While we’d prefer that education dollars be spent on teacher salaries, new textbooks and the technology students need to prepare for the job market, we recognize that the top priority for every parent, teacher, administrator and school board member is guaranteeing that every child and staff member who walks into a school will also walk out at the end of the day.

That’s why the most recent capital investments bill approved by the Legislature included $25 million earmarked for safety improvements in schools across the state. While it’s not feasible (nor desirable) to turn every school building into an impregnable fortress, we like the idea that if someone with bad intentions attempts to enter a school, they will encounter significant barriers to entry, as well as technology that would alert police and instantly put everyone in the building on high alert.

Granted, the locked doors, buzzer systems and surveillance cameras that greet school visitors today can pose some inconvenience, but they’re the price we pay for keeping students and faculty safe.

But there is a downside to the grant announcements that were made last week; namely, that there wasn’t nearly enough money to go around.

Ninety school districts and charter schools received grants to improve safety at a total of 123 buildings statewide. But the list of grant requests encompassed more than 1,000 buildings and $230 million.

Assuming none of the requests were frivolous — and we think that’s a safe assumption — that means less than 10 percent of the safety needs have been met. In Rochester alone, requests for improvements in 23 buildings totaling $6.3 million were denied.

To her credit, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius does not deny the shortfall. “The school safety grants announced today only scratch the surface,” she said after the recipients were announced last week.

While school districts will do what they can to make their schools safer, we don’t want teachers laid off or programs reduced in order to pay for security. Retrofitting old buildings with modern security systems isn’t cheap, so the Legislature will need to continue to fund school safety, either through future bonding bills or new direct allocations to the Department of Education.

The $25 million allocated so far is a good start, and the application process encouraged school districts across the state to assess their existing security systems, find weaknesses and proposes fixes.

Now the Legislature needs to step up and help turn those proposals into reality.

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