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Democrats Target Budget Committee’s School Safety Cutback

Credit: iStock

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner

Democratic lawmakers and Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul are criticizing the Legislature’s budget committee for rejecting new funds for the Office of School Safety.

The vote by the Joint Finance Committee (JFC) this past Thursday, June 8, will “gut” the office, ending its ability to collect reports from around the state of threats to school safety, Kaul said last week after the JFC concluded its work for the week.

A proposal to extend funding for the Office of School Safety was not included in the budget for the Department of Justice (DOJ) that the committee passed with only Republican votes. 

“Without prompt legislative action to remedy this issue, core services that office has provided — including the 24/7 tip line that has received thousands of contacts — will end,” Kaul said in a statement. He called the decision “simply inexplicable” considering the state’s projected surplus of nearly $7 billion.

In addition to the DOJ, budget provisions JFC passed Thursday covered the state’s corrections and administration departments as well as the Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS). 

The Office of School Safety was established at the department under a law the Legislature enacted in 2018. Since 2020 the office has had a round-the-clock system for schools to report threats and seek guidance on school safety matters. 

According to a Legislative Fiscal Bureau report, the office received 3,871 contacts between May 2022 and May 2023, most often about bullying incidents or suicide threats.

The Office of School Safety’s duties also include making school safety grants and advising on school safety plans. Schools and school districts are required to file school safety plans with the office.

The office currently has a staff of 16. It received $1.8 million in American Rescue Plan Act pandemic relief funds to cover 12 of those positions. The money will run out by the end of 2023 according to the fiscal bureau.

That will leave the school safety office with 3.8 positions, funded by $567,000 from the state’s general fund along with $307,000 in federal money. Evers’ budget proposed adding $989,000 for 7 additional positions, which JFC Democrats included in their budget proposal incorporating all of the governor’s items. 

After rejecting the Democratic proposal on a 4-11 vote, the committee’s Republican members passed their version of the legislation 11-4.

The Republican version omitted the additional school safety office funds, which neither they nor Democrats mentioned during the meeting. The Republicans added $2.5 million that was not in the Democratic proposals for schools to make critical incident maps if they haven’t done so already. 

The Republican DOJ budget added $500,000 to the department’s budget for an ongoing task force on internet crimes against children and for related help to local police departments. The Democrats had proposed twice as much for those items. 

The final budget also increased state crime lab funding by $123,600 for three positions — about 16% of the $750,000 the Democrats proposed.

“Our actions support programs to improve school safety, prevent internet crimes against children and help our state’s forensic crime lab support law enforcement throughout the state,” said JFC co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) in a statement their offices distributed 20 minutes after Thursday’s meeting started and before the committee had voted on the DOJ budget. 

Referring to the JFC’s recent decision to budget $900,000 for a Brown Deer swimming pool project, Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison), stated after the meeting, “Today, Republicans spent more on a swimming pool than the Office of School Safety.” 

With the omission, “our children will be less safe tomorrow than they were yesterday,” Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard (D-Madison) said in a statement Friday. She charged GOP lawmakers with “prioritizing politics over people – this time at the expense of the safety and lives of our children, teachers, and staff.” 

This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.