Douglas County commissioners, school board members differ on safety spending proposal

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Tensions flared in a Douglas County Board of Commissioners meeting as commissioners voted to allocate $13.3 million toward school safety initiatives amid pushback from the Douglas County School District, which called the plan hasty, and members of the public who decried commissioners' intent to offer public funds to private schools as unconstitutional.

The May 28 meeting fell exactly three weeks after the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting. Two suspects are accused of killing 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo and injuring eight other students. The tragedy spurred the commissioners' decision to offer funding toward school security.

In their plan laid out on May 28, commissioners seek to increase school security by helping fund 61 schools resource officers in the county by the 2021-22 school year. That would be up from the 11 SROs in the county today.

The total cost of funding 61 SROs is estimated at $6 million. Douglas County has pledged an ongoing $3 million, which is contingent on a 50% annual match from schools in the county. The money is open to traditional public schools, as well as charter and private schools.

School district officials said next year's budget has already been set, making it difficult to match the funding.

If funded, the county proposes adding 31 SROs in the 2019-20 school year, 11 in 2020-21 and eight in 2021-22.

Commissioners also passed resolutions that establish committees to research how it will spend the largest chunk of the $13.3 million allocation: a one-time $10 million portion of county reserves. One committee is a “Physical School Safety & Protection Funding Committee” and the other is a “Supportive Mental Health for Students Funding Committee.”

School district officials, including Superintendent Thomas Tucker and school board President David Ray, were skeptical of the committees. On May 28, the district issued a news release criticizing the makeup of the committees, saying charter and private schools would have a disproportionate representation.

The district already has a safety and security committee in place, and the county's committee would be “reinventing the wheel at best and will only promote randomness of solutions,” Ray said.

DCSD officials also requested commissioners stop discussing elements of school safety procedures in the public eye, saying it could tip off potential attackers.

“Please do not continue to place our students in a vulnerable position,” Ray said.

Ray and Tucker echoed residents who spoke during public comment, saying giving public funds to private schools opens the county up to legal challenges.

District 1 Commissioner Abe Laydon said the board consulted with county legal staff before including private schools in their proposal and concluded it was within their purview.

Board Chairman Roger Partridge said he believes it is important the board of commissioners retain control of how the $13.3 million is spent.

“I don't believe those who elected us said we want you to hand over your authority,” Partridge said.

The board of commissioners' next step is to form the two committees. Plans to dedicate the money swung into motion two weeks earlier.

On May 13, commissioners discussed allocating $10 million toward school safety through a one-time gift. Possible ways to spend the money included entryway security and mental health programming.

A formal decision was not expected until May 28, but conversations continued in the meantime, including at a May 23 board of education study session.

Commissioners met with DCSD's board of education during the study session to discuss school security and how to spend the proposed $10 million. At that meeting, Ray said local officials need to work together to form a “clear vision of what is safety in schools."

The school district's May 28 news release, attributed to the board of education, detailed concerns with the board of commissioners' offers. It said the district can only utilize funds from the county in ways the commissioners desire, "regardless of whether or not these goals are recommended by security experts or the DCSD Board of Education."

The statement from the board thanked community members for supporting the passage of a mill levy override and bond issue in November 2018, saying the measures provided physical security improvements and 80 counselors beginning with the 2019-20 school year. But it was clear the school board was not happy with the commissioners' proposals.

“With respect, the Commissioners were not elected to make decisions for our students, staff and schools in DCSD," the release states. "We would be grateful for monetary support, as well as support of any ballot initiatives (Mill Levy Override or Bond) in the future. It would be irresponsible, however, for our seven elected, volunteer board members to abdicate decision making responsibility for DCSD to the Douglas County Commissioners or any committees they may form.”

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