Newly proposed grant funding for school safety upgrades sparked a slew of questions from House members Thursday who questioned how the $12 million fund would be used and whether it is enough.

Richard Hickman, executive director of the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, detailed the proposed creation of the School Security Grant program while testifying on the group’s all funds budget (HB59) proposal of $405.6 million in fiscal year 2014 and $427.7 million in FY 2015.

The House Finance & Appropriations: Primary & Secondary Education Subcommittee also heard testimony on the budgets of the Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, Ohio School for the Deaf, Ohio State School for the Blind, Casino Control Commission and Lottery Commission.

The OFCC’s proposed grant program would allow the commission to reimburse schools for the purchase of one MARCS first responder communications unit and one door security system per building. The plan allocates $12 million in capital funding for the purchases.

Rep. Debbie Phillips (D-Athens) said she recently visited a third-grade special education class and the students’ questions were largely about how they would be kept safe. Last year’s shooting at Chardon High School and the recent Sandy Hook killings have brought the issue to the forefront. She asked about the adequacy of $12 million to put the safety systems in place for all schools.

Mr. Hickman said as a grant program, it is the decision of the district to apply for a grant and determine what they need for the protection of students.

“From district to district we would expect to see different approaches to their grant proposal,” he said, adding the attorney general is working through a committee to look more broadly at security issues.

Rep. Matt Lundy (D-Elyria) said he is trying to figure out who are the winners and losers through the grant funding given the funding couldn’t be stretched to every district in the state.

Mr. Hickman said the Ohio School Facilities Commission – a subset of OFCC also overseen by the director – thinks when the school construction program is completed it would rebuild about 2,200 buildings. There are a lot of buildings left that have yet to enter the program and many for which the commission is not sure what security they have in terms of controlling access to the buildings. The grant total was based on an estimate of how many buildings remain.

To the extent the funding is insufficient, he said he expects more money from the major construction program could be moved into that fund.

Mr. Lundy said he thinks districts don’t want to wait three years to improve its security measures when a new building is constructed.

Ms. Phillips asked if the state has a sense of the status of safety at schools. Director Hickman said as a construction agency, OFCC sees safety is a primary objective. The state has constructed almost 1,000 buildings with a vestibule at the entrance and a lockdown function and security cameras.

“We have had feedback from school districts on the security systems…we review these initiatives each year as we update our construction program and our requirements under that manual, so what we are doing is really confined to the structure of the school building,” Mr. Hickman said, adding the grant program allows districts that have not yet entered into the program to implement things that “make a lot of sense.”

Rep. Ron Maag (R-Lebanon) asked how the expense for a MARCS system would be beneficial compared to established 911 access. Director Hickman said he has heard from schools that during an emergency it is not uncommon for phone lines to be jammed and for safety personnel to be able to reach the appropriate person in the school. The MARCS system would provide direct contact to law enforcement.

Mr. Maag said EMTs will not enter a building until it has been secured. He asked if the MARCs system would inform individuals waiting outside of when it is safe to enter. The director said once a first responder arrives there are other means of communication among them and people within the building.

Chairman Rep. Bill Hays (R-Harrison Twp.) asked how MARCS was selected for use, to which the director said a district can evaluate whether that system provides what it needs. If not, that would prompt further discussion between OFCC and the district. The grant does not require its installation.

The OFCC funding proposal, which reflects a 15.7% increase in the first year and another 5.4% increase in FY 15, would also pay for the OAKS Capital Improvements module, which is the state’s online construction management system currently available to all state agencies and state colleges and universities. The allocation would also allow for the system to be expanded to K-12 projects.

OFCC is also seeking a language change for the school energy conservation program that would align the program to be more like the state agency version by requiring the installer to provide energy guarantees.

“This will help ensure that districts actually receive the savings they were promised from the vendors who perform the work,” he said.

OFCC also seeks the ability to approve requests based on whether the project is consistent with any other state-assisted school facilities project in that district and to have districts under the oversight of a state fiscal or academic oversight commission seek approval from that commission before submitting a request, Mr. Hickman said.

The Executive Budget also proposed to transfer the functions of the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission related to capital improvement to OFCC. The change would reduce overall costs and place authority and resources within a single commission.

Another change would remove the separate construction authority of the Department of Natural resources and align their practices with those of other state agencies. ODNR would have local administration authority for self-perform projects under $1.5 million, Mr. Hickman said. The agency would also have separate authority for work on dam projects and those funded through the waterway Safety Fund and wildlife funds.

Answering Rep. Gerald Stebelton (R-Lancaster), Mr. Hickman the governor’s change in how schools are funded could change the order in which schools are served by the Ohio School Facilities Commission if a district’s position on the equity list is altered.

Rep. Phillips asked how the phase out of the tangible personal property tax reimbursement payments to districts affects the equity list presently. Mr. Hickman said OSFC has moved through the list in such a way that those changes would not have as large of an impact as in the past. Most districts with TPP issues have been served but there are likely some that still feel their placement is hurt by that funding change.