Education

Sweeping safety upgrade proposed for Lexington schools — and tax increase to pay for it

Fayette County School Superintendent Manny Caulk unveiled a sweeping plan to make Lexington schools safer — from more counselors to more metal detectors — a plan paid for with $13.5 million in increased property taxes.

"School districts across the nation are investing in initiatives designed to improve school safety," Caulk said efforts that might include increased security at school buildings or expanding mental health.

"Those efforts are laudable, but the report from our District Safety Advisory Council made it clear that only a comprehensive approach will be successful."

To that end, Caulk presented a 10-point plan that includes hiring 50 more law enforcement officers and 37 new counselors for schools. In future, Caulk said, the district wide ratio should get to 250 students for every counselor district wide. Currently, the ratio is 568 students per counselor. The plan would also issue ID badges to all staff and students at middle and high schools, upgrade entry and exit security points, and partner with University of Kentucky's Adolescent Medicine department for better mental health assessments.

The plan would also include more social media monitoring, more training for school employees and an upgraded emergency communication system.

The property tax increase would cost the average homeowner about $88 a year, officials said, about $7.30 a month. The Fayette County Board of Education will hold a public hearing and a vote on the tax on July 16.

Starting July 17, residents can create a petition to oppose the tax increase, and would need roughly 14,000 signatures to force a recall vote. Otherwise, the measure would go onto the fall tax bills.

School and business officials were optimistic about public support for the plan, given the incidents that shocked Fayette County this past school year. In January, two students were killed at Marshall County High School, then in February, 17 students were killed in a shooting at a Florida high school. Later that month, Fayette officials got a tip about a Dunbar High School student, who was later found to have a rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition in his bedroom. In March, a gun was found at Henry Clay High School, and a week later, a Frederick Douglass High School student accidentally shot himself in the hand with a gun he brought to school.

Caulk convened the District Safety Advisory Council, which worked through May on its recommendations. Then Caulk went to members of the business community to see if they would support the plan.

And they did, said former legislator and attorney Bill Lear, who spoke for the business community, including Commerce Lexington, at the press conference. He said people like the "robust mix" of measures, which combine tangible safety changes with more attention to mental health.

"Every once in a while, there's something so important it's worth paying extra for," he said. "We think it's appropriate to stand up today for school safety."

Lear was flanked by other community heavy hitters, such as Central Bank CEO Luther Deaton, Urban League President P.G. Peeples, United Way Director Bill Farmer, and entrepreneur Alan Stein.

The proposed tax would charge 5 cents for every $100 of home value. That means someone with a $100,000 house would pay an additional $50 a year in property taxes. Fayette County's school property tax rate currently ranks 38th out of 173 school districts. State law allows districts to raise property taxes by just 4 percent a year. The last time Fayette County raised rates by 5.5 cents was in 2007 for a major facilities overhaul.

Here is the full Fayette County Safety Investment Plan:

1. Hire 50 more law enforcement officers to make sure there's one in every elementary, middle and high school in Fayette County.

2. Fayette County currently has one counselor for every 568 students. In the first year, the district would hire 37 more for a ratio of 300 students per counselor, then moving to a 250 to 1 ratio, which is the national standard.

3. Install security alarms at all exterior doors at every school, and provide cameras, security systems and other enhancements at all schools that need them.

4. Require ID badges for all staff, contractors and middle and high school students.

5. Partner with UK Adolescent Medicine to provide access to comprehensive adolescent assessment and health services for all middle and high school students.

6. Frederick Douglass High School currently has metal detectors. Add them at all middle and high schools, as well as more staff for implementation.

7. Currently 24 schools do not have secure lobbies or vestibules. Renovate all buildings to ensure all schools have vestibules with double entry access.

8. Contract with an external vendor to monitor possible safety and security threats made on social media across multiple platforms.

9. Adopt a common social and emotional learning curriculum districtwide, and expand training for staff, students, families on safety, mental health and social and emotional learning.

10. Modernize the district's emergency community and planning system. Currently, the district has limited direct communication between staff during a crisis.

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