House GOP ups ante on school safety push

Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, discusses a $50 million school safety proposal, surrounded by GOP House colleagues. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Consensus is forming around a sizable boost in funding that Minnesota schools could use to shore up security, with House Republicans announcing Thursday they hope to devote $50 million to that effort.

That is more than double the amount that DFL Gov. Mark Dayton proposed for upgrades to building security and aid to hire staff to protect students or counsel those in need of intervention. His plan calls for about $21 million spread across two years.

While differences must be sorted out in the session’s final two months, school safety initiatives have emerged as a common priority.

“There is no more important thing that we will do this session so we want to make sure we are addressing it adequately,” said House Education Finance Committee Chair Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.

The $50 million would be a combination of grants and tax levy allowance. In the House package, districts could use it to install new security features, pay for school resource officers, hire mental health counselors or fill other gaps.

Loon said the goal is to make it flexible enough for schools tailor funds to their specific security needs.

“All parents want to know that schools are doing everything possible to make sure their facilities are safe. They are secure. You know who is coming into your buildings,” she said. “That you can keep people out who you don’t want in your buildings or that shouldn’t be there. And that kids are not falling through the cracks.”

The expectation is that every school would receive at least $30,000 more, with bigger districts in line for more because some aid would be tied to student headcount.

The discussion is being driven in large part by the February school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead.

That incident has also provoked a push for changes to state and federal gun laws. Large protests, some driven by students, have kept attention on the issue.

Minnesota House Democrats faulted the GOP proposal’s silence when it comes to changing gun laws.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, seized on that point.

“Republicans are doing nothing on gun violence prevention,” Hortman said in a statement. “Minnesotans have a right to safe movie theaters, safe churches, safe college campuses and safe schools, and they won’t get that unless we address gun violence.”

Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt held out the possibility of some changes to Minnesota gun laws happening this year despite the difficulty proposals have encountered so far.

“We’ve had some hearings on gun legislation already. We very likely will have more, and as those conversations continue we hope to find solutions that will actually prevent these problems from happening in the future,” Daudt said. “But we are committed to keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals.”

Many Democrats and a few Republican legislators have gotten behind bills to strengthen criminal background checks for gun buyers. Other measures would remove guns from people experiencing mental health crises.

Daudt, R-Zimmerman, didn’t say what gun bills could see action. But he said Minnesota might need to reexamine its background check system to so that no buyers of concern slip between the cracks.