NASHVILLE — A controversial bill that would let designated Tennessee educators go armed in schools cleared another House hurdle Tuesday, despite concerns raised by law enforcement officials and others.
Civil Justice Committee members approved the bill on an 8-3 vote, just hours after Gov. Bill Haslam announced he was providing $25 million in one-time money and $5.2 million more in annual state dollars to address some school-safety issues.
The issue of school safety has accelerated nationally in response to recent school shooting incidents.
During debate on legislation to arm teachers, sponsor Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, a retired educator, who had delayed the measure to see what money Gov. Bill Haslam would recommend, told the panel "I could tell we probably wouldn't get that money. That's why I started to bring this back."
Byrd, a retired principal, said his rural school district can't afford to pay for school resource officers (SROs), who are law enforcement officers given additional training to specifically deal with school situations.
Prior to the committee, Byrd told the Times Free Press he didn't see enough money in Haslam's proposed budget amendment to cover the costs of funding school resource officers.
Haslam previously told reporters that hiring SROs or personnel takes "a lot of dollars."
Administration officials say the $5.2 million in recurring dollars the governor is recommending in his budget amendment can be coupled with an existing $4.8 million to provide $10 million.
Only about half of Tennessee's estimated 1,800 public schools currently have a school resource officer. It's an issue in Hamilton County as well, where Sheriff Jim Hammond has advocated training and arming some specially designated teachers or school staff.
Providing school resource officers for every school could cost upwards of $80 million to $100 million a year. But some law enforcement officials and others argue that costs could be lowered if schools use existing law enforcement officers with some additional training.
In the Republican-controlled Civil Justice Committee, debate over arming some educators was sometimes heated. Minority Democrats objected to Byrd's bill, raising alarms about potential mishaps, or worse, that could arise in situations involving inadequately trained teachers. They also quarreled with Republicans over gun restrictions in various states.
"I'm sorry," scoffed Majority Leader Glen Casada, R-Franklin, "the most dangerous place to be is a gun-free zone."
Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch also fretted over the idea of arming educators, telling the panel "we're concerned about the overall safety of the school." Environments with an active shooter are a "combat situation," Rausch warned. "If they're not properly trained for that, that's a concern for us."
Terry Ashe, a former sheriff and now executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, said "we fundamentally believe that SROS are the only way to go."
He said the issue is centered on poorer counties such as Byrd's and suggested the state "steer all those funds towards distressed counties" to pay existing law enforcement officers to be at schools.
Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, cited Sheriff Hammond's support and questioned whether there have been any problems with a law enacted a few years ago that allows private schools to designate some educators to be armed.
Carter said the issue boils down to costs, and many rural districts simply cannot afford SROs.
Pointing to Sheriff Hammond's plans to meet Wednesday with county school officials, Carter told law enforcement representatives that "to say that all sheriffs are against it is dead wrong, dead wrong. We're presented here today with the issue of either do something or do nothing."
He said if there was money to provide for SROs across the state, the bill wouldn't be necessary.
Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville pointed to several instances in which teachers with guns created problems, citing the recent panic in a Dalton, Ga., school where an armed teacher barricaded himself in a classroom and his handgun went off. No one was hurt, but the educator now faces criminal charges.
Speaking Tuesday morning about his funding amendment, Haslam said it was necessary to get something to lawmakers on amounts as his special working group comes up with detailed recommendations.
"We didn't want the working group finishing and recommending some things and us not having any money at all available for that," the Republican governor said.
The $25 million non-recurring monies for school safety would largely go toward measures to harden school building security in areas ranging from entrances and exits to cameras. Overall, the governor's amended budget proposal includes $74.7 million in one-time funds and $9.8 million in recurring money in areas across state government.
The list includes:
» $3 million in a new fund to help Tennessee schools begin purchasing new buses equipped with safety restraint systems.
» $10 million for the state's Aeronautics Development Fund to aid smaller airports.
» $9 million to purchase sophisticated equipment for the state's Colleges of Applied Technology.
» Adding $5 million to the budget's already-slated $10 million for state broadband accessibility grants.
» $3 million in additional funding for a veterans home in Cleveland, which combined with previous years' funds would bring the total state contribution to about $10 million.
» $2 million for an addiction services research program in Memphis and another $1 million for mental health treatment and recovery services.
» A $500,000 grant for continued work on the historic Rhea County Courthouse.