Amid growing tension between Texas Republicans and public school educators, a former school board president-turned state GOP legislator is trying to serve as an intermediary on solutions to prevent school shootings.
Members of Bexar County’s state legislative delegation met Tuesday with leaders from San Antonio’s school districts to get input on what role the state could play to prevent tragedies like the one at Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School that killed 19 students and two teachers.
Among those in attendance was state Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio Republican who served on the Alamo Heights Independent School District board for 12 years. On Thursday, he will be back in Austin to sit on a House select committee on youth safety assembled by House Speaker Dade Phelan in the wake of the shooting.
“Schools are going to be actively involved in this,” Allison said in an interview after Tuesday’s meeting at NEISD. They want “more attention to school safety and, naturally, more funding.”
The House committee faces the task of working with schools on these issues as the relationship between Texas Republicans and public school educators is at an all-time low.
The last legislative session saw laws passed seeking to regulate how teachers discuss slavery, and in May Gov. Greg Abbott threw his support behind a voucher program that public school advocates say would divert resources from already strapped budgets. On Tuesday, a federal PAC was registered in San Antonio to raise money for a group that says it wants to “abolish public schools.”
“I think they’re misinformed,” Allison said of fellow Republicans waging war against educators. “Public schools are vital to our education system, they’re vital to the economy, they’re vital to our workforce and our public education.”
Tuesday’s gathering sought input from San Antonio’s public school superintendents on what resources they need to help protect students when they return to campuses this fall. Uvalde Consolidated ISD Superintendent Hal Harrell attended the meeting via Zoom.
Chief among the superintendents’ concerns was additional resources to fund security, according to the legislators. The superintendents did not participate in a media briefing after Tuesday’s meeting.
“For all the talks of providing school safety in our schools, we provide a very small allotment for that,” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer said in an interview after the gathering. “We’ve got a $10 per kid when it comes to their school safety. For some school districts in San Antonio, that’s not even $70,000 [per year].”
Though public school funding can be a contentious issue in Austin, Allison said there’s reason to believe some of the funding concerns could be addressed.
“From all accounts, we’re going to have a significant [budget] surplus going into this next session,” Allison said of the increased revenue the state expects from inflation. “It’s important that we look very strongly at one-time expenditures, and some of the areas that we’re seeing where there’s need in our schools for safety items or law enforcement are one-time expenditures.”
Democrats would like to go much further, including gun control measures in their school safety plans. Allison, for his part, has also indicated he’s open to those ideas.
But none of the other members of the San Antonio delegation have a seat at the table on the committees working to address the fallout from the Uvalde shooting.
Democratic state Reps. Liz Campos, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins and Republican state Rep. John Lujan also attended Tuesday’s gathering, which Martinez Fischer organized to bring the county’s delegation together on an issue of great importance to their community.
“I think it’d be irresponsible to have any conversation where you’re going to set limitations before you get in the room,” Martinez Fischer said of the idea of coming back to work on school safety without addressing gun violence. “To get things done in Austin, I think the last thing we should be doing is going there with our hands tied behind our backs.”
Republican leaders have given no indication they plan to bring lawmakers back for a special session to pass legislation related to school safety before the new school year, as many Democrats have urged.
“I think we need a session, but first, I think we need some serious committee work,” said Allison, who suggested Thursday’s committee hearing could lay the groundwork for implementing some of the ideas superintendents presented Tuesday.
Lamenting the three special sessions added onto last year’s five-month House legislative session, Allison said, “I’m afraid we’d run into the same thing. Emotions are very high right now.”
Gervin-Hawkins said the superintendents’ ideas included offering access to telemedicine in schools to address mental health, as well as the use of technology to screen people coming and going from school campuses.
“I thought they brought some awesome solutions,” said Gervin-Hawkins. “Particularly in our rural and small schools. … If we’re able to access to telehealth, mental health services, that would be awesome.”
Gervin-Hawkins shared Allison’s skepticism about returning for a special session without specific solutions in mind that can garner support from both parties.
“I haven’t heard any Republicans that are eager to go back, and a lot of Democrats aren’t eager to go back either if we’re not going to have rich, meaningful conversations,” she said.
“Just to go back to go back and grandstand? No one has an appetite for that,” said Gervin-Hawkins, who was among the Democrats that fled to Washington, D.C., last fall in a failed effort to stop a Republican-led law to limit voting access. “I think it’s important that our discussion focuses around resolutions to this big challenge that faces us.”