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CMS may get $30M for security

Possible county deal could add cameras, fences, ID systems

By Ann Doss Helms And David Perlmutt
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and county leaders are nearing a deal on a plan to spend about $30 million to keep dangerous intruders out of schools by adding fences, cameras and ID systems to screen visitors.

The money would come from school bonds that already have been approved, eliminating the need to wait for a November referendum. CMS officials launched a safety review in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December, and took a proposal to county leaders last month.

Officials are still working out details, with commissioners expected to vote in March. But county leaders voiced support at a planning retreat Friday.

“Nothing is more precious than our children in our school system,” County Manager Harry Jones said. “Those kids need to know that they are protected, and their parents need to have the confidence that their children are being protected.”

CMS Chief Operating Officer Millard House said the proposed security measures would affect virtually all of CMS’ 159 schools. They include:

• Installing video cameras at elementary and middle schools. CMS already has them at high schools.

• Fencing in sprawling school campuses, such as those at Myers Park, South Meck and West Meck high schools, and mobile classrooms.

• Adding systems that scan visitors’ ID cards, do an instant background check and alert authorities if the check reveals a potentially dangerous history. About 85 schools already have some form of ID scanner, House said, but the new ones would be more sophisticated.

• Adding remote admission systems at the main entry that would let school staff use a camera and intercom to decide whether to open the door.

• Adding locks that require a fob or card to open doors.

The Dec. 14 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six adults, spawned security reviews across the country. Earlier this week the Rock Hill, S.C., school board approved spending more than $2 million to boost school safety, including buzzers, locks, cameras, new doors and structural alterations. The Rock Hill district had completed a safety review just before the tragedy in Connecticut.

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has repeatedly noted that Sandy Hook had a good security system and that it may not be possible to stop an armed attacker. But he and his top staff immediately began looking at what it would take to make schools safer.

CMS came up with a wish list that would cost about $42.5 million, including about $8 million for additional police officers and security staff. Morrison and the school board will decide whether to request the extra staff as part of the 2013-14 budget.

Nationally, the topic of stationing more armed guards in schools has been a hot topic. The National Rifle Association has called for armed officers in all schools. And Thursday, N.C. Sen. Stan Bingham, R-Davidson County, introduced a bill that would allow teachers and volunteers to serve as armed “school safety marshals” after a training course.

CMS currently has police officers, armed with guns, pepper spray and tasers, in middle and high schools. “Security associates,” who also help with behavior and other safety issues, are not armed.

The CMS building improvements could be launched this spring.

CMS got voter approval for $516 million in school bonds in 2007. County officials decide when and whether to issue the bonds, and they slowed down borrowing as revenue declined in the recession. More than $212 million remains to be spent, county Finance Director Dena Diorio told commissioners Friday.

Much of the CMS bond money has been promised for new schools and renovations outlined during the bond campaign. But some projects came in under budget, and CMS closed two schools – Davidson IB Middle and Amay James Prekindergarten Center – that had been slated for about $10.7 million in improvements.

County and CMS leaders are still figuring out exactly how much should be used for the safety projects. Diorio and House are scheduled to meet next week to work out details.

House said CMS also will meet with school and community leaders to discuss some changes, such as fencing. He said his staff has looked at decorative fencing to avoid anything that would be a neighborhood eyesore, but noted that “the prettier it gets, the more expensive it gets.”

“I feel very good about $30 million being strongly considered,” House said. “I can’t imagine another school system in the country that would have ramped up security to this level.”

Helms: 704-358-5033
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