Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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Taxes for school security can now fund student mental health treatment

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    Gardner

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    Fineske

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COLUMBUS — In the wake of the Parkland, Fla. school shootings, a new Ohio law could open the door for tax dollars earmarked for school safety to also be used to intervene proactively with troubled students before they might walk into classrooms with guns.

Gov. John Kasich recently signed into law House Bill 24, which included a last-minute amendment allowing school districts to seek property levies that go beyond paying for metal detectors and security officers.

At the urging of the Sylvania schools, the bill was amended to include a provision allowing the money to be spent on counseling and mental-health treatment of the kind some argue could prevent such tragedies.

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Superintendent Adam Fineske stressed the school board has just begun discussions, and no decisions have been made.

Following the Parkland shootings, the superintendent and two school board members met at Southview High School with state Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), who had successfully pushed for passage of legislation several years ago giving schools the security levy option.

“We feel that our schools are pretty safe, but we are seeing a big uptick in mental-health needs,” Mr. Fineske said. “If we can get to them proactively, we might be able to stop school shootings from happening.”

In 2013, in the wake of the school shootings in Chardon, Ohio — near Cleveland — and Sandy Hook in Connecticut, the General Assembly authorized Ohio school districts to ask taxpayers, via the ballot box, to pay more to finance school security and safety. Such levies would be subject to renewal every five years.

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Much of the debate when the original law was passed was on such things as secure building entrances, installing metal detectors, and other physical barriers. But the law did not specifically spell out what it meant by safety and security.

Sponsored by state Rep. Tim Ginter (R., Salem), House Bill 24 deals primarily with changes to an existing tax exemption for property of veterans’ organizations and Medicaid provider rates.

Mr. Gardner arranged to have the “Sylvania Amendment” added in the Senate to spell out what lawmakers mean by school safety and security: permanent improvements to buildings, hiring of safety personnel, training, mental health services, counseling, and other related but unspecified purposes.

The House of Representatives went along with the change.

The senator admitted not many schools have taken advantage of the new taxing authority since the law was enacted nearly five years ago.

“I don’t think there’s any question that this will encourage more schools to take another look at this option,” Mr. Gardner said.

Mr. Fineske said he’s not sure how Sylvania district voters would respond to such a levy request.

“That’s the tricky question,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t think anyone wants taxes to go up. But this is school safety. With the incident in Florida, violence has impacted communities like ours so immensely. We can’t do what we’ve always done whenever there’s been a school shooting.”

Mr. Gardner said this is a discussion that school districts will have at the local level with voters.

“School districts are required to have a lot of courses in math, English, Social Studies, and sciences,” he said. “Those are the things that have standardized tests.… I think mental health and counseling have become of more and more prominent concern.”

Contact Jim Provance at jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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