In Albemarle County’s schools, 70 percent of the classrooms can only be locked from the hallway side of the door.
School officials said that’s almost 600 classroom doors that many teachers leave unlocked, a potential problem in the event of an emergency. The cost to install “intruder locks” division-wide is estimated to be $150,000, or $250 a door.
It’s one potential expense the Albemarle School Board couldn’t immediately address Tuesday as they held another budget work session and tried to find the keys to solving a $6.76 million funding gap for next school year.
“I am surprised how reasonable [that cost] is…and it’s something that I’d like to see us do this year because I think it’s a good safety measure that we can roll out across the entire division,” said School Board member Jason Buyaki.
School division staff said the purchase of new locks, which is not in the Superintendent’s current $164.28 million funding request, would require new revenues or reprioritization of other security enhancement projects.
A current Henley Middle School teacher’s spouse brought the issue to the attention of the school board via email.
“As a law enforcement officer for over 30 years, I have great concern for the staff/children at Henley Middle School,” wrote Jim Hooper on January 17 in an email obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow. “If the students and teachers are inside the classroom and are told to ‘Lock Down’ their rooms due to an emergency situation, they would not be able to secure their doors!”
Protocol calls for the doors to be relocked after students enter the rooms, propped open, and then closed in an emergency. However, school officials said many doors are closed during instruction but left unlocked for convenience of students coming and going from the classroom.
“I know there is a cost but I believe this is a very serious concern for teachers and students,” Hooper added.
Hooper was unable to be reached for additional comment on his concerns. The Albemarle County Police Department said school safety audits had brought the issue to the attention of school staff.
“We saw a concern regarding the location of the locks on some school doors and provided that information to school administrators,” said Carter Johnson, county police spokeswoman. “We recommend that all doors should be able to lock from inside the classroom. If not, then we recommend that they remain locked throughout the day and stay propped open.”
“We provided these recommendations to school staff and they are reviewing the information,” Johnson added. “The Police Department looks forward to continuing to work with school administrators to improve the safety of students and staff.”
School staff said that the police department’s security audits were still underway and being done school by school.
“I think the board’s point is well taken, to the extent that we can enhance the ability for classrooms to be locked more quickly and with greater certainty, that’s beneficial,” said Dean Tistadt, the school division’s chief operating officer.
BUDGET HEARING PREPS
The School Board holds its public hearing on the FY 2014-15 budget Thursday. It is expected to vote two weeks later on the funding request that will be sent to the Albemarle Board of Supervisors.
School boards in Virginia do not have taxing authority and must secure local education dollars from its appropriating body, in this case the Albemarle Supervisors.
The Supervisors are also beginning to review their budget for the rest of local government, and by March 3 they will decide what real estate property tax rate should be advertised for an April 8 public hearing. Once the tax rate is advertised, it cannot be raised further, but it can be lowered in the course of budget deliberations.
This month’s property reassessments will contribute an additional $216,483 to available revenues. The new tax revenue reduces the School Board’s funding gap from about $7 million to $6.76 million.
“I think we will be able to make a few cuts and a few adjustments to bring the gap down,” said School Board member Steve Koleszar. “But it’s still going to be a very large gap that we’re going to be sending the Board of Supervisors.”
“We should be saying to the Board of Supervisors ‘This is how much we need to provide the level of services that we think the school division needs,” Koleszar added, “but if we get short-funded these are some of the cuts that we are going to look at.’”
The School Board asked staff to bring a series of tiered spending reductions to the budget work session which will be held immediately after Thursday’s public hearing.
“Everything that’s in here is an expression of the strategic planning objectives that the board approved,” said Superintendent Pam Moran. “There’s not any one initiative that’s not tied right back to that.”
Both school board members Eric Strucko and Koleszar said they would be meeting with the newly elected members of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors representing their respective districts, Liz Palmer (D-Samuel Miller) and Jane Dittmar (D-Scottsville).
“We had an election year and a fairly significant change in the composition of the [Board of Supervisors],” Strucko said. “I don’t know any of the new Supervisors that didn’t make education a centerpiece of their campaigns.”
“The substance of the conversation will be, ‘Alright, here we are…how do you truly value public education?’” Strucko added.