Minnesota school districts are in a race to secure a piece of the $25 million in school safety funding approved by the state Legislature earlier this year.
The Minnesota Department of Education recently released application materials for the safety grants, which can be used for improvements to school buildings. Now, the state’s districts and charter schools have just over a month to make their case for help with upgrades ranging from new alarms to keyless door entry systems to bullet-resistant glass.
When the state begins accepting applications on Aug. 29, the competition is likely to be fierce; after two recent high-profile shootings in Florida and Texas, safety is a top concern for schools around the state as they gear up for a new school year.
In meetings with school administrators after the Legislature wrapped up this spring, much of the focus was on the school-safety money.
“The No. 1 question we received was about the grants,” said Assistant Education Commissioner Hue Nguyen. “It is on the minds of many, many superintendents.”
The pot of money available to schools was part of a $1.5 billion bonding bill passed during this year’s legislative session. Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers had called for a more expansive school safety funding package, but a separate plan to set aside $28 million for schools stalled amid political wrangling between the DFL governor and Republican Legislature. The money was ultimately tucked into a larger budget and policy bill that Dayton vetoed.
With 491 districts and charter schools eligible to share in the grants, it’s unlikely that every project will receive funding. State officials are encouraging districts to submit their applications right away on Aug. 29 so they’ll be among the first in line as the money is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. The process comes with some caveats: At least half the money must go to districts and charters outside the 11-county metro area, and projects on a “high priority” list will get preference.
Department of Education officials worked with the Department of Public Safety’s Minnesota School Safety Center to set up a priority system that gives highest ranking to improvements that boost building-entry security and improve communications systems. Projects that fit in those categories include door entry systems and hardware upgrades such as electronic locking systems, door alarms and sensors and building renovations that would help funnel foot traffic through a main entrance or office. Priority communications projects could range from better radio systems that could help schools get in touch with law enforcement agencies to mobile apps that would help notify school staff of an emergency.
Lower-priority projects include motion-sensor alarms, surveillance cameras, vehicle barriers and equipment used to lock down sections of a building during an emergency. The grants are limited to $500,000 per school building.
Like many school administrators, Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City Superintendent Nels Onstad said he’s hoping to get help securing the entrances of his district’s elementary and high school campuses. But he’s worried his application will face tough odds with so many other schools in contention for the money — and he’s concerned that smaller districts like his will have a harder time putting their applications together. While larger districts have full-time staff dedicated to grant writing, smaller communities such as his do not.
Onstad said he doesn’t blame state education officials or lawmakers, but he said some districts are in a tough spot, knowing they can’t pass up a chance to help with what they see as a growing need for tighter security.
“Everybody is scrambling,” he said.
The Department of Education will announce the grant recipients on Sept. 28, and districts can use the money between Oct. 30 and June 2020.
In a statement, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she wants to see the Legislature take a more expansive look at school safety when it reconvenes in January.
“As we look toward the coming school year, I call on our state legislators to work with educators, students and parents on more comprehensive solutions, so our kids only think about learning when they go to school,” she said.