Safety tax is fiscally responsible way to protect students

Manny Caulk
Manny Caulk

After the massacre of children and teachers in Parkland, Fla., I, like many of you, wondered if it could happen here.

My question was answered within 72 hours when I received word that the Lexington Police had recovered an AR-15 assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition from the bedroom of a student reported to have threatened a mass shooting at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

There, by the grace of God, go we.

Our world is changing — not just across the nation but also in Fayette County.

In the span of six hours last February, three Lexington teenagers died of gunshot wounds in separate incidents. And during the first nine days of March, a Henry Clay High School student was arrested for bringing a loaded gun to school and a Frederick Douglass High School student accidentally shot himself during class with a gun he had in his pocket.

While these shocking events were unfolding, our school district was taking steps to ensure our core responsibility of keeping our children safe would be upheld and strengthened.

We established the District Safety Advisory Council to develop specific recommendations to ensure our children are safe at school, at home and in the community.

The council was comprised of 28 students, parents, educators, first responders, city officials and business, faith and community leaders selected for their expertise in safety and emergency management.

In May, the council released its recommendations, developed with input from hundreds of community members and drew upon the best practices from across the nation.

Based on that report, our district proposed the Comprehensive 10-point Safety Investment Plan to not only prevent a school shooting, but to also mitigate other risks students face, including bullying, self-harm, suicide, drug use and online exploitation.

The initiatives are designed to make our schools among the safest in the nation. Beyond facility upgrades to be completed the first year, when fully implemented there will be more than 200 additional mental-health professionals, school nurses, law-enforcement officers and security monitors.

After carefully considering other ways of funding these critical investments, the Board of Education voted in July to approve a 5-cent property tax to pay for the safety plan. That will cost the average homeowner $87.50 annually.

Since I joined FCPS, we have hired more teachers for our most vulnerable students, expanded professional learning for new teachers and principals, purchased challenging reading and math materials for every classroom and put the latest technology into the hands of our students.

In addition, the district cut more than $4.4 million from the central office this year to protect classrooms from a $5.5 million reduction in state funding. Only 1.5 percent of district employees work at central office; and although FCPS has grown by more than 7,000 students in the past decade, there are fewer central office staff today than there were in 2005.

We have already cut as deeply as we can without impacting the classroom. So unless we want to stop that progress or cut back on instruction, we need to fund the safety investments in a permanent, financially responsible way. That means a recurring and dedicated revenue stream.

Using our contingency fund is not a legitimate solution. State law requires school districts to set aside money for unexpected emergency expenses, like families having savings accounts. The existing contingency fund would cover less than six weeks’ expenses.

Maintaining a contingency fund for emergencies also has resulted in an upgrade in the district’s bond rating, which saves taxpayer money when new schools are built.

If we use one-time money to fund the recurring costs of the safety plan, a year from now we will be facing the choice between teachers or school safety. I refuse to believe that those who oppose this investment today will support a tax increase a year from now.

This dedicated investment — which is less than the price of a movie ticket a month — can only be used for safety, so our community, families and students can rest assured that these additional safety resources will remain in place.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “the time is always ripe to do what is right.”

That time is now.

Manny Caulk is superintendent of Fayette County Schools.

At issue: Commentary by Committee for Recall Vote on Fayette County Property Tax Increase, “Pay for school safety by cutting other spending, say petitioners for recall election on tax increase”