LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers heard wide support Thursday for a bill that would give public school districts a way to garner more funding to improve school safety.
The legislation would allow districts to increase the local property tax levy by 1 cent, if approved by at least two-thirds of their school board members. But they could only exceed the state's cap of $1.05 per $100 of taxable property as long as the proceeds go to security improvements.
The bill's sponsor, Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski, said he was initially motivated to improve school safety after a student at Omaha Millard South High School shot and killed an administrator and injured the principal before killing himself in 2011. Kolowski said he felt even more strongly after 20 students and six adults died in a shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut in December.
Kolowski said the measure would help schools hire school resource officers, update door locks and buy new security cameras. The bill doesn't define proper security measures, but would let school officials decide what security updates are needed.
"We need to provide our local school districts with the ability to make the security changes necessary to keep children, educators and parents safe without taking money away from the students and the classroom," Kolowski, the former principal of Omaha Millard West High School, testified during a hearing before the Legislature's Revenue Committee.
If all school districts statewide chose to implement the 1 cent levy, Kolowski estimates, it could bring in more than $16.9 billion over one year to improve school safety.
The National Rifle Association, school administrators and education advocates rallied for the bill during a Thursday hearing, saying safety updates are critical given the recent school shootings in Nebraska and other states.
NRA lobbyist Ron Jensen said improving school security is more likely to prevent shootings than gun control laws. Jensen told the lawmakers that the NRA supports the bill because it is aligned with the group's national efforts to put more armed school resource officers in schools.
"We know this will work," he said. "No one ever gets into the county jail and shoots the place up because they can't get in there."
Millard Public Schools administrator Angelo Passarelli said his school district wants to update its perimeter monitoring system, hire more school resource officers, issue access cards to enter the building and change locks on classroom doors. He said such improvements are costly but necessary to help students and teachers feel safe. He said a 1 cent levy would bring in an estimated $916,913 per year for Millard Public Schools.
"Senators, we need the additional funding so we can reach the security needs in our district," he said.
The Revenue Committee's chairman, Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, said he was concerned about the pressure school boards would face under the legislation. He said he doesn't want boards that don't increase the property tax levy to be blamed if a shooting were to happen in their district.
"If I am a school board member and I have this tool, I almost have to use it," he said.
Omaha Sen. Burke Harr, who also sits on the committee, said he would like the bill to specify possible security updates. Kolowski said he could add a broad list he doesn't want to be too restrictive because of changing technology.
The committee did not vote on the bill, but Kolowski said he plans to make the measure his priority.
"Nebraskans want their children protected and it is our job to do that," Kolowski said.
The bill is LB346.