Colorado lawmakers agreed late Wednesday to spend $35 million next year on police officers in schools and security upgrades to school buildings.
It was the most significant change to the state’s $28.9 million budget in hours of debate Wednesday, and it represents a major allocation to schools in a year when lawmakers touted a $150 million increase in K-12 spending as historic.
The revision came after thousands of students descended on the Colorado Capitol to protest gun violence twice in two weeks, as part of a national movement inspired by a Florida school shooting that killed 17. Many of those students were calling for gun control measures, but the political dynamics in the Capitol make new gun laws unlikely. This year, though, legislators have money to spend.
The 2018-19 budget recommended by the Joint Budget Committee already included $7 million for school security improvements. Republicans responded with a half dozen proposed budget amendments to increase funding for school safety measures, several of them by as much as $50 million.
Lawmakers ultimately settled on a $35 million compromise after dramatic brinkmanship that forced Democrats to vote down the $50 million request rather than Republicans withdrawing it voluntarily. The intent of the amendment is to use the money to hire and train more school resource officers and pay for security cameras, controlled access, and other security upgrades to campuses. Separate legislation will be necessary to outline the allowed uses of the money and the process for distributing it – something that could generate yet more debate.
State Rep. James Wilson, the Salida Republican who introduced the amendment for $35 million, said no amount of money was worth the life of a child.
“School site safety is more important than roads and bridges, and more important than, wait for it, full-day kindergarten,” said Wilson, a former teacher and superintendent who regularly calls for the state to fully fund kindergarten. “If we transport them on good roads and pay for their education but we cannot keep them safe, we have failed.”
State Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat and the assistant majority leader, worked for hours to get the votes for the $35 million. At one point, exasperated, he took to the floor to accuse Republicans of turning school security into a “wedge issue.”
“There was a fist bump. There was an agreement,” he said. “We got all the way up to 35, and then I was told that wasn’t enough, and that just tells me we never really wanted to do anything today.”
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican who survived the Columbine massacre as a teenager, took the podium and acknowledged an informal agreement. But he said it did not mean he had agreed to pressure his members to change their position.
“This is not an easy issue for me,” Neville said, his voice catching with emotion as a hush fell over the chamber. “I’ve had to live with this for 19 years. I want to solve this problem. You’ve all heard my solutions on how to solve this problem, and they’ve been rejected for four years. So here I am discussing a different, less political solution.”
Neville sponsors legislation every year that would allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring their handguns on school campuses. As strongly as many activists believe in gun control, Neville believes just as strongly that more armed adults would make schools safer.
The compromise left some Democrats deeply unhappy. State Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat, said Hispanic and African-American lawmakers don’t feel included in the discussions, and their communities do not necessarily want more police in schools.
“That affects students of color first. … Ultimately, we’re the ones who get shot first,” Salazar said. “Without having these discussions with us, this is not a solution.”
State Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat, said students don’t want to go to schools that feel like prisons. The proposal doesn’t provide what students really need, he said.
“I’m not seeing the additional counselors that we need in our schools to point out a troubled kid or the training for our teachers to know when a child is having trouble, not just at school with a bully but at home with abuse,” he said.
And state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said lawmakers should not mischaracterize the message of marching students or the majority of survivors.
“What they have mentioned is the efforts their schools have put in place to keep them safe, it is not enough,” she said. “What they are asking for is a conversation on this floor about commonplace gun safety measures. I want to be clear about the message of the young people.”
After the vote, Herod linked more officers in schools with the school-to-prison pipeline.
Colorado banned high-capacity magazines and required universal background checks after the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, but gun control has been at an impasse in the legislature since Republicans took control of the state Senate. In contrast, lawmakers have an extra $1.3 billion to work with in the state budget, making monetary solutions more politically feasible.
State Rep. Susan Beckman, a Littleton Republican, said the state improved security at public buildings, and students deserve the same protection.
“This is the time to make schools safe,” she said. “We have done this for state employees. We have spent millions and millions of dollars upgrading our government buildings, yet our schools for years have been underfunded.”
The budget needs one more vote in the House before it goes to the Senate, where legislators will have their own amendments that could change the final form of the budget.
This story has been updated to clarify the next steps in the process.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.