BY DAVE MONTGOMERY | Star-Telegram
AUSTIN — Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie is proposing a half-billion-dollar drawdown from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to help school districts beef up security and bolster technical training.
The Tarrant County Democrat introduced HB 1770 that would authorize spending $250 million from the Rainy Day Fund to establish a grant program that school districts would use to improve security. HB1771 proposes an identical amount from the fund to help schools buy equipment for career and technology education courses.
School security has emerged as a high priority in the 2013 Legislature after the slaying of 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn., in mid-December.
While some lawmakers have advocated placing armed guards in schools, Turner said his measure would be aimed at “equipment and infrastructure,” such as installing security cameras or strengthening door locks. In school districts that have campus police departments, it could also be used for purchases such as additional vehicles or two-way radios, Turner said.
Turner said both of his measures fully comply with Gov. Rick Perry’s admonition that drawdowns from the Rainy Day Fund should be used only for one-time expenditures, rather than recurring expenses.
“What better one-time expenses would there be than to help our school districts upgrade their security and make our schools safer,” said Turner, who represents House District 101 in eastern Tarrant County.
Turner said his second bill is designed to expand technical training at a time when businesses are calling for more emphasis on educational programs to help fill what they say is a critical shortage of skilled workers.
The intent of HB 1771, Turner said, would be to nurture programs such as those at Mansfield’s Ben Barber Career Tech Academy, which offers training in diverse fields such as auto mechanics, culinary arts, drafting, electronics, health and agriculture.
“We’ll be working this hard over the next couple of months,” Turner said after introducing the measures.
RAINY DAY FUNDING
Perry has traditionally been resistant to drawing money from the Rainy Day Fund, also known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, saying that the pool of money should be used only for one-time investments and emergency expenditures, and not for helping offset budget shortages.
In what seemed like a softening of his stance, Perry this year has proposed spending a total of $4.7 billion from the fund, including $3.7 billion for transportation and water. Part of his proposed withdrawal would also help pay for $1.8 billion in tax relief.
State Comptroller Susan Combs has projected that fund will have nearly $12 billion at the end of the next two-year budget cycle as a result of the state’s rebound from the national recession. The fund is supported by oil and gas revenue.
Turner said his bill on school security is “very broadly written” and would give districts plenty of flexibility in proposing how to use the money. The Dallas Independent School District, for example, has recently proposed spending $4.6 million to install cameras, buzzers and electronic readers at elementary schools.
Under the bills, districts would apply for the grants with the Texas Education Agency. The agency would then make the awards based on a district’s need, financial condition and likely effectiveness of the proposed plan.