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Austin ISD considers adding 70 police officers to comply with new Texas school safety law

Students eat lunch in the cafeteria of Highland Park Elementary. A sole person walks in an empty hallway.
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
A new state law requires school districts to have at least one armed security officer on each campus during regular school hours.

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The Austin Independent School District is considering nearly doubling the size of its police department to comply with a new state law that takes effect Sept. 1.

House Bill 3 is a piece of sweeping school safety legislation that Texas lawmakers passed this year in response to the Uvalde school shooting. HB 3 requires school districts to have at least one armed security officer on each campus during regular school hours. Districts can meet the requirement in several ways, such as hiring school police officers or partnering with local law enforcement agencies to assign personnel to campuses.

The Austin ISD police department has about 80 officers currently. Typically two officers are assigned to each high school campus and one is assigned to each middle school. But it will take dozens of additional officers to staff the district’s 78 elementary schools.

“We’re going to have to hire more than 70 SROs — school resource officers — but in addition, of course, we also need the support staff that go along with that,” Austin ISD’s Chief of Governmental Relations & Board Services Jacob Reach said.

On top of officers, Reach said, the district will need to hire more lieutenants, detectives and dispatchers.

“So we would be looking at hiring over 85 new staff members potentially,” he said.

Austin ISD is still figuring out how much it would cost to add these positions. Reach said district officials will present the proposal and its cost to the school board at their next meeting in August. And, the total amount does not just include employee salaries.

“Police officers have a lot of equipment that go along with them, in addition to the training that they need that’s really specialized,” he said. “And for Austin ISD, not only do we want to ensure that they have all the standard training that’s required by the State of Texas, we also want to ensure that they’re trained for how to work with students.”

However much it ends up costing AISD, it will push the district into an even deeper budget deficit. The school board last month approved a new budget that requires the district to spend just over $52 million in reserve funds. Trustees signed off on the deficit budget in order to offer more aggressive raises to retain staff. The compensation package includes a 7% raise for teachers, librarians and counselors. It also raised the minimum hourly wage for all classified staff, which includes police officers, to $20 per hour.

HB 3 does provide districts with $15,000 per campus but school districts throughout Central Texas, such as Lake Travis and Eanes ISDs, have said that money will not be enough to cover the cost of hiring new officers.

It’s no different for Austin ISD. Reach anticipates AISD will receive just under $2 million through HB 3, but maybe not. The way the funding is categorized right now, the funds could be subject to the state’s recapture system, which takes money from property-wealthy districts and distributes it to property poor ones.

Ultimately, the funding in HB 3, does not significantly offset the expense of hiring new officers. The Republican-controlled Legislature also declined to raise the minimum amount of per student funding, known as the basic allotment, leaving many districts strapped for resources as they’re expected to meet these new safety requirements.

“It is big pressure on our budget and big pressure on just the timeline to hire,” Reach said. “Just like teachers, police are very unique because of the amount of training that’s needed.”

The new state law does allow school boards to come up with alternative plans if they don’t have the money to hire peace officers or qualified candidates. Instead they could opt for programs to arm teachers and other school personnel. Reach said Austin ISD did not want to go that route; the district wants officers with mental health training and training on how to work with students.

“Likewise we want teachers to be teaching in the classroom and be focusing on the classroom,” he said. “And so we’re not at this time looking at any of the other options available.”

The Austin ISD school board is set to meet Aug. 10. Reach said district officials will be asking trustees to sign off on a plan that will station one police officer at each campus, with the discretion to station more officers at larger campuses such as high schools.

“Right now we feel this is the best plan to meet the rules under HB 3 and align with what we think is important for Austin ISD,” he said.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at rfogel@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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