Always a possibility but never a certainty til the state’s final budget wraps up, the Safe Schools Levy, a decades-old program for funding safety measures in Minnesota schools, is disbursing $30 million statewide this year.
The one-time allotment, distributed evenly on a per pupil basis to every Minnesota public school district, is contingent on a budget surplus, which the state realized at the end of June with the close of the 2019 fiscal year. Minnesota Management and Budget, the state’s accounting arm, approved the levy earlier this month, and districts throughout the state received the guarantee of extra cash early this month.
The levy allots $36 per student; districts received their allotments based on estimated 2019-2020 enrollments.
“This circumvents the districts having to go back to the taxpayer for more dollars,” said State Rep. Jerry Hertaus (R-Greenfield), who added that “it’s a pretty sizeable amount of change for some districts,” particularly in more rural, spread out communities.
Orono Schools will receive $98,650; Westonka $82,000; and Watertown-Mayer $54,600.
“I think it will be a big benefit to our district,” said Ross Lukan, coordinator of facilities and safety for Orono Schools.
Still a recent boon to the school coffers, there’s still a question as to how the funds will be put to use, but administrators at Orono commented that investments in existing security systems were most likely.
The one-time supplemental aid is a good opportunity to “jump ahead” on upgrades and expansion of current security throughout the district’s schools, said Lukan: further investments to the camera and communications networks and continuing to trade in for automated door locks for all school entrances are all likely uses for the stipend, said Lukan.
In past years, Orono has used the additional money to add to its camera network, purchase AEDs and maintain emergency grab bags, said John Morstad, director of business services for Orono Schools. Orono Schools is likely to decide specifics for this year’s allotment within the next month, said Morstad.
Kevin Borg, superintendent for Westonka Schools, said that Westonka also hadn’t yet made specific recommendations for the money it is receiving through the levy but that a final decision will likely be reached in December
The Safe Schools Levy, which in one form or another dates back to the 1980s, was originally restricted to the expansion of fire safety measures – sprinkler systems, extinguishers and the like – but it has since expanded to include a range of security options, including police liaison contracts, cameras and the automated door locks Lukan mentioned, said Hertaus.
“Anything that can have a nexus to making a school safer I think a parent would think is a sensible thing to do,” said Hertaus, who was partially responsible for tweaking the language behind the levy to extend it to security more generally. “What is a situation in one school isn’t necessarily the same in another school – they have different, unique challenges.”
Districts can also use the money for drug prevention programs, counseling services and gang resistance education training.
The extra dollars free up money in districts’ general funds that otherwise would have gone toward routine upgrades. Instead, that money can now be used elsewhere if needed.