With San Antonio area school districts scrambling to hire armed personnel to comply with a new state law that goes into effect Sept. 1, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales is working to help districts tap into federal school safety funds to help with costs.
That’s one of the solutions that came out of an hour-long roundtable at UTSA Monday — the first day of school for many area districts and just weeks shy of the deadline to comply with Texas House Bill 3, a sweeping school safety bill passed earlier this year. Area superintendents, as well as the heads of local and school police departments, participated in the discussion.
While school district leaders said the measure adds another layer of security, they also said the requirement didn’t come with a commensurate increase in funding.
“They raised the safety allotment 28 cents to a whopping $10 a year, in a year they had close to $33 billion extra money,” Lackland Independent School District Superintendent Burnie Roper said. “It was an unfunded mandate for the most part.”
With just weeks until the law’s effective date, districts are ramping up recruitment efforts, and in some cases asking for an exemption from the law, which requires one armed security officer per school campus.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said his department has been tapped to patrol some districts’ campuses at night so district officers can shift to day patrols in order to comply with the law.
“It’s great to be able to pass legislation saying you got to have a cop on the campus,” he said. “But we’re not going to give you the money to do it. At that point it becomes more problematic.”
Salazar said federal funds could go a long way toward helping schools fulfill the state’s unfunded mandate.
A celebrity boost
Gonzales (R-San Antonio) said federal funds could help districts, but only if they can navigate the daunting task of applying for and meeting all the requirements of receiving a federal grant. That bureaucracy has discouraged districts from applying in the past, he said.
“What has happened if you take the time to submit a grant two times in a row, and you get denied both times. … That is a dead end,” he said.
To help, Gonzales said he would alert districts of deadlines and help them navigate the grant process. He pointed in particular to billions of dollars made available for school safety and mental health as part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in the wake of the Uvalde elementary school massacre.
Another potential solution the congressman pointed to was Uvalde-native actor Matthew McConaughey’s recently launched Greenlights Grant Initiative, which Gonzales is helping with. The initiative provides grant writing services and reminders to school districts free of charge.
Parents, teachers, administrators and grant writers can request information and receive grant alerts, tutorials, webinars and guidance on grant writing, among other tools.
According to the website for the philanthropic initiative, school districts who demonstrate need will be provided “fully funded grant-writing consulting services.”
Gonzales also said he hopes more funding will be made available in forthcoming special sessions of the Texas Legislature in the coming months.
But even with additional funding, district leaders say there aren’t enough qualified personnel available to meet the surge in demand.
Not enough qualified personnel
Large and small districts across San Antonio are asking to be exempted from HB 3 – citing the lack of personnel and the adequacy of current law enforcement patrols. North East Independent School District, the second largest in the region, voted to seek an exemption last week. South San Antonio ISD is slated to vote on a similar measure later this week.
“Of course we want [a security officer] in every facility, we just don’t have the manpower to do it,” South San Antonio Superintendent Henry Yzaguirre said Monday. “I just don’t have the money to spend.”
South San Antonio ISD recently adopted a deficit budget and has struggled with financial issues in recent years.
But the issue is affecting districts in every corner of the city. Southwest ISD Superintendent Jeanette Ball said the board there would support dipping into the district’s fund balance, which is like a savings account, if district officials could find qualified people to hire.
“The board is committed to taking the money from the fund balance because we don’t have a lot of extra money,” she said. “But finding the individuals is nearly impossible.”
Under HB 3, districts have the option to hire private security officers or arm teachers through the guardian program.
Northside ISD , the county’s largest, is looking to hire an additional 20 police officers, even as they have 15 vacancies in the current force, according to Shane Allard, the district’s safety and security officer.
Competing with other agencies
Complicating matters, the districts are all competing with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office and municipal police departments, which pay much higher salaries than most school districts, according to Kelly Rasti, director of governmental relations for NISD.
“We already have the challenge of not having enough of our spots filled,” she said. “But going down the road, I think that’s going to continue to be an issue, largely due to the state not providing enough funding for us to offer more enticing salaries.”
Some area districts are already in compliance with the new armed personnel requirement.
Edgewood ISD has been able to assign one officer to each of its 20 campuses, according to district Police Chief Jesse Quiroga.
The district has also formed a SWAT team as an “extra safety precaution,” according to Quiroga.
Southside ISD, a small but fast-growing district, has had an officer at each of its eight campuses for the last three years, according to spokesman Randy Escamilla.
Of all the law enforcement officials who spoke during the roundtable Monday, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus was the only one to report no issues with recruitment in his department.
McManus also said that despite the challenges related to the new law, law enforcement agencies across the region are aligned in responding to threats as the new school year gets underway.
“The good news is that we, in law enforcement, are very well coordinated when it comes to threats and threat assessments,” he said.