Bill offers new tax vehicles, no state funds for school security


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist MICHEAL MOORE

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Posted on January 22, 2013 at 7:47 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 23 at 12:29 AM

AUSTIN -- At Austin high school, officers Shelby Criswell and Karl Copley walk the halls, talking with students and keeping them safe.
They're part officers, part counselors, and part of a team of 43 specially trained school resource officers whose daily duty consists of looking after some 86,000 students spread over 125 campuses within Austin ISD. 
After the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, AISD Police Department Chief Eric Mendez said second-guessing is difficult. Asked what his department could use more than anything else, Mendez referred back to the tragedy.
"Maybe we need to increase the number of people that we have available to respond to elementary schools," said Mendez. "Has that been reasonable and feasible here in the last three or four years, budget years? No, because budgets have gotten tighter, money has gotten tighter."
Money in mind, lawmakers met at the State Capitol Tuesday to unveil new legislation intended to give school districts more options to fund security measures such as increased armed police presence.
The "Texas School District Security Act" authored by State Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and State Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Humble) would give school districts and communities the option of creating a dedicated property tax or sales tax (under the state cap) to provide funds for school security.
"We know that the additional protection of our kids and our schools won't come without additional cost to the school districts," said Williams, chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. 
Williams explained the bill would not provide additional state funding, rather it would allow districts a means to create a special revenue vehicle similar to current law allowing for the creation of municipal crime control districts.
The property tax for Austin ISD is currently $1.079 per $100 valuation, about ten cents under the $1.17 cap. Many school districts are at or near the cap, and the law would not raise current caps on property tax levied by school districts. Whitmire suggested those at or near the cap would still face challenges.
"Other school districts that are capped, they're going to have to look at a different model," said Whitmire. "But this is a vehicle that is going to address most of the school districts in the state with the ability to prioritize a revenue source that no one will have to debate what it's purpose is. It's to provide safety on our campuses." 
"Parents came home on the 14th and we huddled up and we hugged our kids," said Barbara Beto, a parent with three children in Round Rock ISD. As Legislative Action Chair of the Texas PTA, Beto calls the bipartisan proposal a step in the right direction. 
"It's the right tone," said Beto, who said recent proposals which involve arming teachers don't sit well with many parents.
"They've recognized that we can't do more than what we're doing on the same dollar and that we need to be doing something different. If there needs to be another revenue source, they're going to give districts the latitude to do that," Beto said.   
For Mendez and his officers, it's not about politics. It's about work. 
"Without fail, every single day I have to consider that we do the best job possible to ensure the safety of all our students and our staff and our visitors," said Mendez. "Every single day."