UCPS wants $3.5 million for safety improvements

The Union County Board of Education is considering asking for as much as $3.5 million in this year’s budget request for safety improvements at area schools.

The school system has asked for funding for some of the safety improvements included in this year’s list in past budgets, but recent national events and discussions about safety in schools could become a key issue in this year’s UCPS budget debate.

“(The board) believes that our schools are safe, but the school system will continue to work with its law enforcement partners to identify and improve any processes or procedures that may need revision,” Marce Savage, the vice chairman for the board of education, said.

The board’s finance, strategic planning and technology and facilities committees have all approved the proposed budget, including the $3.5 million in safety improvements.

Savage, who has three children in Union County schools, said she has never been concerned her children weren’t safe in school and has always been impressed by the procedures and immediate response seen in local schools.

Valerie Secker, president of Sandy Ridge Elementary’s PTA, said she agrees Union County schools are safe, but did hear concerns from parents about increasing safety in Union County schools after the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six faculty members were shot and killed.

“What I heard from parents was … they felt that their kids were safe at school. They weren’t scared, they just wanted to know what more could they do,” Secker said.

According to Savage the board is not focusing on any specific areas of safety, but wants to look at general issues and make improvements across the county.

“The board is focusing on all areas of safety, as our students’ and staffs’ safety is our foremost concern,” she said.

Some projects included in the proposal are the upgrading of fire alarm systems, the installation of fire hydrants and the addition of fencing at some area schools.  Schools proposed to add fencing to their property are Benton Heights Elementary, Parkwood Middle’s basketball courts and Waxhaw Elementary’s playground.

The proposal also includes the upgrading of football stadiums at schools like Piedmont High School where the board is requesting $1.7 million to replace the home bleachers and more at the stadium.

The school board’s budget is funded by a combination of state and county money. If the school board does not get the money needed to fund their budget from the state and county they will have to make cuts throughout the budget. Safety improvements could take the brunt of that.

“Superintendent (Mary Ellis) meets with our state representatives to advocate for the school system,” Savage explained of the partnerships working toward a budget.  “At the county level, the school system staff works with county staff while the board of education works with county commissioners to request any needed increases in funding.”

Last year’s showdown over the UCPS budget is something both sides wish to avoid this summer, and whether funding for proposed safety improvements makes the final cut likely won’t be known for a few months. Some of the safety improvements have been on past budget requests only to get sliced in final negotiations, though the Sandy Hook incident could become a rallying point to get these improvements approved this year.

During last year’s negotiations, UCPS was forced to let go around 350 teaching assistants who help in the classroom after falling nearly $10 million short of the funding the system asked for from the state. School leaders and county commissioners went back and forth on approving extra funding to pay for the positions, with commissioners eventually giving an additional $1.65 million to schools to hire back assistants.

Earlier this year, commissioners passed a new rule stating, in part, that the board is not required to fill departmental funding gaps from the state. The move could mean Union County wouldn’t have to pay millions of dollars extra to UCPS if the school system doesn’t get the money it requests from Raleigh.

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