State's school safety recommendations lack funding

Hartford - Members of the state General Assembly's School Safety and Mental Health Services working groups said Tuesday that they weren't sure how the state would help fund more counselors and mental health professionals at schools.

"I think we are being somewhat disingenuous with our constituents when we start talking about grants and additional monies when we have no money," said state Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, of the School Safety Working Group. "The state of Connecticut is broke."

The School Safety Working Group agreed to borrow for infrastructure enhancements but could not come up with a funding source for more school resource officers, school counselors or mental health professionals. The Mental Health Services Working group has come to bipartisan agreement on a couple of items but as yet hasn't figured out where the funding will come, according to state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairman of that group.

On Tuesday, the School Safety group agreed to require school districts applying for new construction and renovation grants to meet security infrastructure standards. The group also agreed to allocate additional funding and reauthorize current funding for districts to apply for school security infrastructure grants.

Some of the security measures for which schools would be eligible include ballistic glass for entry ways, computer-controlled electronic locks, mobile emergency response buttons for school personnel and solid core internal and external doors.

The group did not agree on whether to provide state funding for more mental health professionals and school resource officers. In the end, members decided they would recommend that schools have more personnel but that they could not mandate personnel increases because they could not guarantee funding.

"I think that certainly we can guarantee nothing, but we can work really hard to try to do this with every intention of following through," state Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, said.

They did agree to propose additional funding to the Department of Education so it could provide technical advice to school districts as to how many mental health and SRO staff they would need.

When it came to personnel increases, Bartolomeo said, officials in school districts in her area have said they were concerned with mandates that were only funded for one year.

"Many of the schools that I have spoken to have said we are better off left alone if you can't continue the funding because if you start something you can't finish, you leave a hole that we have to make up for on the local level," she said.

In response, state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, said a multi-year grant could be created for personnel costs, but many legislators were wary of this proposal.

"I really hate to begin a program where our municipalities, and our boards of education may be counting on the money being there and enacting programs only to have the money ... disappear the following year," Witkos said.

Local superintendents also were opposed to unfunded mandates. Norwich superintendent Abby Dolliver said the Norwich district definitely could benefit from more funding for school resource officers and mental health professionals.

"We would love to increase SROs, but we know that we don't have the capacity in our budget to do that," Dolliver said. "I am not in favor of a mandate for personnel that is not funded or briefly funded."

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said that even though that state is in a tight budget, she would rather see the state spend "tons" of money on School Based Health Centers than on school infrastructure. Currently, the centers provide physical, mental health and oral health services to children and adolescents in about 75 schools in the state, according to the Connecticut Association of School Based Health Centers' website.

In his two-year budget proposal, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy cut 22 School Based Health Centers that were funded this fiscal year. His proposal cuts $2.7 million from fiscal year 2014 and from fiscal year 2015.

"The School Based Health Centers are being cut," Urban said. "That is insane when we are talking about mental health."

Harp, of the Mental Health Services Working Group, agreed that providing funding for School Based Health Centers was going to be an "uphill battle."

But there is Republican and Democratic support for the centers, she said.

They are primarily in the urban areas of Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, Harp said. She said her proposal looked at expanding the centers to suburban high schools.

But the working group also has not yet had a conversation on how to pay for its proposals, she said.

The group will recommend school districts apply to a competitive request for proposals program through the Department of Public Health for centers because there isn't enough funding to provide every school with a center, she said. The group also has bipartisan support for increasing Connecticut's Mental Health First Aid program, which would focus on closing the mental health services gaps for youth ages 16 to 18, she said.

The mental health services group will provide its consensus items to House and Senate leadership on Friday, Harp said. The school safety group will provide its consensus items and an addendum of non-consensus items to leadership in the near future.

j.somers@theday.com

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