More than $6.8 million is on its way to the Douglas County School District to bolster student safety, while STEM School Highlands Ranch — the site of a fatal shooting last year — is set to receive $56,000 from the same grant program.
Douglas County commissioners in May opened $10 million in one-time grant dollars to public, private and charter schools in the county. Schools could apply for mental health resources and physical security projects.
“We knew that our community was hurting, and we wanted to come together alongside of them and our school board and the rest of our schools,” Commissioner Lora Thomas said.
Commissioners on Jan. 14 approved an intergovernmental agreement with the school district awarding it $6.8 million. The funds were to be paid in a lump sum within 30 days of executing the agreement. The board will approve contracts with the charter and private schools that applied at a later meeting.
Commissioners thanked staff for their time working on the grant process — one marked by many unknowns and uncharted territory.
“I don't think any of us had any idea what kind of workload we were putting on staff when the three of us came up with this idea,” Thomas said.
Questions such as how schools should apply, what sort of contract they would use, if the county would issue large checks or pay in some other form and how public the schools' plans might be made in the process lingered as commissioners announced their plan to offer the grants.
Many were ironed out over weeks and months as staff set up the program and in close consultation with district attorneys.
Douglas County School District Assistant Superintendent Ted Knight said he was not aware of previous partnerships between the county and schools of this kind.
Securing school buildings
A key question throughout the grant process was if and how the county would maintain oversight of the public's tax money once it was in the hands of schools.
The district's agreement allows the board of commissioners to audit the district's grant projects and inspect the project areas. A report is due to the board within 90 days after the completion of a project or at the end of the school year if a project is ongoing.
“Focus your answers on how the project was beneficial to the students served and the outcomes you observed,” the agreement states. “Provide as much narrative as needed to demonstrate success and tell your story.”
Also of interest was how schools would focus the grants to make students safer, whether that be through hardening its buildings or supporting students' mental health.
The district's application showed a significant interest in funding physical security projects. It requested $11.35 million to heighten the physical security of its schools.
Funds would help implement recommendations for the commissioners' physical safety committee, which have been kept vague, but generally included improving communication and consistency in programs across county schools.
Commissioners formed two committees — one focused on mental health and the other on physical security of buildings — that compiled recommendations for the type of projects the grants should fund and guided schools in how to apply.
As for mental health support, the district requested $1.2 million in funding. The money could go toward an extensive list of tools, according to the application. School climate surveys, social and emotional learning curriculum and training for teachers and staff in a variety of programs.
The county ultimately approved funding $823,182 in mental health projects for the district, according to the intergovernmental agreement.
Projects include a climate and culture survey, social emotional curriculum, mental health training, pay for trainers' salaries when training falls outside regular school hours and pay for substitutes.
Nancy Ingalls, the district's personalized learning officer, said part of the training will focus on providing students with trauma-informed care. Children often have adverse experiences, she said, and teachers need to know how to spot signs of trauma and be sensitive to that in the classroom.
“If adults understand the needs of kids, they're better able to provide the supports that kids need, which leads to a culture of safety,” she said.
How the remaining $6.8 million grant will be spent was redacted because it involves the physical security of schools. Some projects are underway or will begin this summer, while other could take longer to implement.
“Some of the physical safety initiatives that will come out of this money, which for obvious reasons we wouldn't talk in too great of detail, they'll help harden our buildings, they're helping with communication, they'll help with observations, they help train folks,” Knight said. “I think we've got a pretty good 360 on this.”
District charter schools are represented in the district's request and will receive some of the $6.8 million grant. But charters were allowed to apply individually for additional grant dollars as long as the projects were different from the district's proposals.
STEM requested $253,000 to put toward $290,950 worth of work at the school, according to its grant application, provided to Colorado Community Media through a public records request.
The application, heavily redacted, provides little detail about STEM's plans to boost the security of its building.
County and school officials have said repeatedly they were leery of exposing sensitive security details about local schools.
Under a section labeled, “Specify how funds will be used,” STEM's application begins by saying, “Creating a safer, smarter and more engaging learning environment educators and staff must stay at the forefront of innovation to deliver a superior teaching with holistic safety environment,” before trailing off into blacked out line after blacked out line.
Also redacted were the findings of a safety and security assessment for the school, as well as details about any improvements made as a result of that assessment. STEM's project was slated to begin and end in 2020 and would require a bidding process.
Commissioners said STEM was awarded $56,000, roughly 20% of its request, because they were careful not to approve projects that were represented in the district's application, could be funded elsewhere or were an on-going expense, such as a school resource officer.
“The focus was on economies of scale and that there was not duplication,” Commissioner Abe Laydon said.
A spokeswoman for STEM provided a statement regarding its grant, but the school declined an interview about the grant process.
“We are very grateful that the Douglas County Board of Commissioners has accepted our grant proposal to further our ability to continue improving the safety of our school for our students and staff,” the statement said. “This funding will enhance security at STEM School Highlands Ranch. We look forward to implementing the improvements that this funding will provide.”
'Our schools are safe'
School district officials said they were relieved by how commissioners steered the grant process following the shooting at STEM that left one student dead and eight others injured in May. School shootings often spur hyper-political conversations about student safety, Knight said.
“That could have happened here,” Knight said. “We were able to not get involved in that and instead just stay focused on school safety.”
Knight and the district's director of school safety and security, Rich Payne, said the committees, comprising experts in each field, were instrumental in keeping the grant dollars directed toward research-based tools.
By the time the committees presented their recommendations in July, Knight and Payne said they mostly suggested resources already used in the district.
“It's pretty well understood that our schools are safe for kids and staff right now,” Knight said, “and this great, collaborative partnership has helped to enhance that safety for everyone.”
Commissioners said they spent hours discussing school safety with district officials. Thomas felt she gained a “very excellent understanding” of safety measures already in place through the process.
“All of this brought me much closer to our school board," she said. "I spent many hours with (school board president) David Ray. They weren't always happy hours, but we debated, and we talked, and I have a respect for President Ray."
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