Cooper seeks $130M for school safety, mental health needs

HILLSBOROUGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday he’ll soon ask legislators for an additional $130 million so public schools and colleges can make building safety improvements and for local districts to hire hundreds of additional school-based nurses, psychologists and police officers.

The Democratic governor rolled out a portion of his recommended budget adjustments for the coming year addressing school safety that may find favor with the Republican-controlled General Assembly when lawmakers reconvene next month. They have been debating similar proposals in committees since 17 people died in a Florida school shooting in February.

“Lately across the country, there have been too many reminders of what can go wrong, how things can turn deadly,” Cooper said after meeting with support staff at Cedar Ridge High School in Orange County. “Conversations about school safety and gun reform are happening across our country ... these conversations have taken on a new urgency.”

Cooper last month urged lawmakers to pass more restrictive gun laws, including background checks and permits for people looking to buy semi-automatic, assault-style rifles. GOP legislators have shown no interest in more gun regulations.

Cooper focused Thursday on fiscal changes as legislators return to adjust the second year of the current two-year state government spending plan approved last summer.

“I hope this is an issue where we can agree,” Cooper said after the announcement, adding that school systems need funding flexibility after recent legislative actions to restrict how state funds are used. The state spends 40 percent of its $23 billion budget this fiscal year on the public schools.

The governor wants a $65 million reserve created for building improvements at public schools and University of North Carolina and community college system campuses. The money could be used for items like upgrading communication systems and doors to better monitor schools and contain potential intruders. Speakers at legislative committee meetings have highlighted the needs of aging schools with dozens of open entrances or weak classroom doors.

Cooper also wants $40 million for at least 500 additional school nurses, psychologists, social workers and counselors statewide. Groups representing counselors and psychologist say the numbers of workers in their fields working in schools are below the recommended average statewide. At least 17 of the state’s 115 K-12 school districts lack a full-time psychologist this year, according to Department of Public Instruction data.

Every traditional school in the Orange County school district has a full-time nurse. Cedar Ridge nurse Jennifer Pepin talked about instances where having a full-time nurse helped address a student’s psychological or physical well-being quickly before it became unmanageable.

“School nurses, school counselors and school social workers have been specifically educated to address mental and psychiatric concerns,” Pepin said at Cooper’s announcement. “But we need to be present every day to do that work.”

Cooper also will ask for another $10 million so districts can hire more school resource officers, who are police officers assigned to school campuses. Cooper and some legislators also want more generous support for districts in non-urban counties under a matching grant program to hire officers in elementary and middle schools.

Cooper said his budget also will contain funds to help a program that aids K-12 schools to create risk management plans and get their floor plans entered into a digital network. And he wants money for more mental health programs for young people, including training programs for teachers and support staff to identify student mental health issues early.

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