St. Tammany Parish voters will decide May 4 whether to provide a permanent source of funding for new school security measures that went into effect in the parish last fall in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in which 17 students and staff were killed.
A proposed 2-mill property tax, which would generate just over $4.1 million annually, would pay for school resource officers and mental health providers at each of the system's 55 schools.
Also on the May 4 ballot is a $175 million bond issue to replace aging modular classrooms and pay for security and technology upgrades. Those bonds would be paid with revenue from 13.90 mills that the district already levies.
Early voting begins Saturday.
The School Board used money from the BP oil spill settlement to pay for school resource officers and mental health providers this school year.
Schools Superintendent Trey Folse said that getting that many new positions filled over the summer was a challenge that could not have been met without the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies.
"Because this is proactive, we're preventing things from happening," Folse said. "The feedback from parents, teachers and administrators is that there is something about having a law enforcement officer on campus. It's good to pull up and see a police car and see an officer in the halls."
Folse said the mental health providers are also critical and will bring results into the future when students are grown.
"I can't throw up a power point, but there are anecdotal stories" about good things the providers have done, Folse said, adding that people have asked him to ensure those personnel remain in place.
School officials stressed at the time that the money used to pay for the new personnel the first year was not recurring revenue and that they would be seeking a permanent way to pay for them.
Some schools within municipalities were staffed with regular police officers working details rather than permanently assigned school resource officers because police departments didn't want to commit to making permanent hires until there is a dedicated funding source, Folse said.
If voters approve the millage, all schools in the parish will have a school resource officer, he said.
The school system is touting the 2-mill tax as a rededication of an existing millage, but it is actually a new tax. The School Board voted this month to roll back its debt service millage from 15.9 mills to 13.9 mills so that this measure, if adopted, will not mean an overall increase in the millage rate paid for schools.
Overall, the school system levies 64.41 mills in property taxes, more than any other government body in St. Tammany Parish.
But school officials point out that the board has consistently rolled back its millage rate to less than the legal maximum, with reductions that have saved taxpayers $47.1 million, according to information about the tax on the system's website.
Folse said that most of the feedback he has received is positive, and he's been talking up the measures to PTAs and other organizations. The two measures have gotten the backing of the Northshore Business Council, the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers, NAMI, Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston, Sheriff Randy Smith and local police chiefs.
School Board President Elizabeth Heintz said that she is getting positive response as well. "I believe our parents understand the importance of safe and secure campuses," she said.
The school system has had historic success in getting support for bond issues, Heintz said, adding that if the new issue is approved, two of the schools in her Covington-area district will be replacing modular classrooms that have been in use for many years.
But school officials are taking nothing for granted. A flyer with the header "Securing Our Future" was sent this month to the homes of the system's 39,000 students — preceded by a robocall alerting parents that important information was coming home.
Staff meetings were also held to brief the system's 5,800 employees.
The $175 million bond issue is also partly tied to security improvements, with $12 million pegged for devices to detect intruders and $2 million for camera upgrades.
But the bulk of the money, $150 million, will be used to build permanent classrooms to replace the oldest modular classrooms that are in place at 16 parish schools.
Another $10 million will be used for technology upgrades in classrooms, including electronic devices for students, with the focus on grades four to 12. Another $1 million would pay for central computer room upgrades.
Folse said the technology initiative recognizes the fact that students are increasingly taking tests on computers, which demands not only knowledge of the subject but also computer skills. Not every student has access to that technology at home, he said.
The system has had a pilot program in place this year to provide laptops to students at different grade levels at various schools, which Folse said has gone well. That initiative would be rolled out to grades four to 12 systemwide if the tax is adopted, and existing equipment will be passed down to kindergarten to third-grade classrooms.