A national debate rages in the aftermath of a school shooting in Parkland, Fla., about how to improve school safety, but several Galveston County educators say the answer doesn’t lie in arming teachers.
“At this time, the administration and board are not closing the door to any possible safety measure if it is in the best interest of our students,” said Rodney Cavness, the superintendent of Texas City Independent School District. “However, we don’t feel that arming teachers would be the best solution because of additional problems that it could cause.”
Cavness isn’t alone. Representatives for Galveston and Clear Creek school districts also voiced concern about a proposal to arm teachers that has gained steam in the weeks following the Parkland shooting.
“I do not believe that arming teachers positions us closer to our primary role,” Galveston Superintendent Kelli Moulton said. “Galveston ISD maintains its own police force to address the safety of students and staff.”
After Nikolas Cruz, 19, shot and killed 17 students and teachers on Valentine’s Day at his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, parents, politicians and community members across the country have weighed in on how to reduce school mass shootings.
President Donald Trump in the days following the shooting touted the possibility of arming teachers and said that armed teachers should receive a bonus to incentivize the move.
Trump said he would consider using federal money to train the teachers and called for hardening schools against attacks.
As Trump and other politicians weigh legislative solutions, survivors of the Parkland shooting have brought the issue to a national audience through advocacy on TV stations and other areas.
There might not be a magic bullet when it comes to school safety, but a combination of measures can have a big effect, Clear Creek Independent School District Superintendent Greg Smith said.
“A multi-pronged approach is needed,” Smith said. “You need mental health support on campuses and safety features on the perimeter as well as internally. There’s a lot we can be doing.”
Several district officials pointed to recent security changes as evidence they are already addressing the issue of student safety.
As part of a $487 million bond issue Clear Creek voters approved in May 2017, district officials set aside $8.1 million to upgrade security systems, including installing new security cameras.
“Safe schools are not necessarily just a single event,” Smith said. “Safe schools are something we’ve approached with the last two bond elections.”
A $31 million May bond referendum Galveston voters will vote on includes $2.95 million for districtwide security upgrades and LED lighting upgrades.
Those security upgrades include creating security vestibules at 13 campuses and replacing many of the district’s outdated security cameras.
While several district officials said arming teachers wasn’t a good idea, they also pointed out that Texas law already allows for some teachers to carry weapons.
A Texas statute known as the Guardian Plan allows licensed and certified school districts’ employees to carry concealed handguns on campus as a precautionary measure.
“I understand why you have a plan like that for teachers in rural areas, but one of the first people trained under the statute had to go out on workman’s comp because they shot themselves in the foot during a training session,” Smith said.
Former High Island Superintendent D’Ann Vonderau was licensed under the plan and made headlines in May 2017 when she left her pistol in a district-owned vehicle and it was later found by students.
Trustees later removed Vonderau from her position.
High Island district officials Friday said they were open to the possibility of arming teachers.
“I will say that we are a very rural district,” Superintendent Travis Grubbs said. “We are taking any and all precautions to ensure student safety. Yes, arming trained personnel is an option as well as other products on the market that help protect our students. Safety is our No. 1 priority here.”
Following the Parkland shooting, Galveston school district police Chief LeeRoy Amador discussed safety procedures at a school board meeting, highlighting security measures.
A policy committee also is working at Clear Creek Independent School District to create suggestions to improve school safety to be presented to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Smith said.
“They are all features the governor might want to consider funding, as opposed to being on the local backs,” Smith said.
Several local educators said it was important to work with law enforcement to ensure safety.
“It would be preferable to increase the presence of armed officers who have been highly trained to deal with situations that might require the use of a weapon,” Cavness said.
Smith agreed, saying that arming teachers would complicate matters for law enforcement officers responding to a dangerous situation.
“If there’s an active shooter situation, and you have a teacher with a weapon and an active shooter team coming into the premises, that teacher having a gun might not have a good ending,” Smith said.
All education experts agreed the community needed to make joint decisions about what to do to increase school safety.
Successful practice requires good training, practice and great communication, Moulton said.
Holly Badman moved to Galveston from The Woodlands three years ago to be closer to the water and spend less time sitting in traffic.
After renting for two years, the 10th-grade English teacher at Ball High School started looking at houses to buy. But on her salary, and with student loans to pay off, the options were very limited, she said.
She faced a dilemma: keep “throwing away money on rent,” move to the mainland and increase her commute, or get creative, she said. She took the third option.
Badman purchased an RV. About $900 a month pays her rent at an RV resort on Galveston’s West End and her bank note, she said. The space is smaller, but also cheaper than the $1,100 she was paying for an apartment on 45th Street, she said.
“I hate to say that I settled for my housing, but at least I’m by the beach,” Badman said.
Badman’s experience mirrors that of many middle-income island residents looking for homes in an increasingly expensive housing market that has many feeling wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.
“The salaries here aren’t comparable to the housing, but I love it here,” Badman said.
Some efforts are underway to increase the availability of affordable housing on the island, although the number of available houses and other units is small.
Galveston home values have climbed, particularly in the past five years, said Andrea Sunseri, a Realtor for Sand ‘N Sea Properties with 40 years of experience on the island.
For instance, the median selling price in 2017 was $255,000 compared with $235,000 in 2016, a 9 percent rise, according to data collected by Sand ‘N Sea Properties. Median refers to the price in the middle, meaning exactly half of homes listed are above that price and exactly half are below.
In Galveston County, the median sales price for houses sold in January was $213,450, compared to the $135,000 median price in January 2011, according to the Texas A&M University Real Estate Center.
Nationally, the median home price is closer to $200,000, according to Zillow, an online service that collects real-estate market information.
People are attracted to living on the island and prices are naturally higher in coastal communities, Sunseri said. Buyers also seem to have noticed improvements and investments being made on the island that make it a nice place to live, she said.
Those are positive changes for the community, she said.
But there’s a downside for new home buyers trying to get into the market, she said. It’s increasingly difficult to find houses listed below $200,000, she said.
“We need housing in between $150,000 and $200,000, but what you see are things that need so much work to them and people don’t have the funds for those renovations,” Sunseri said.
There are houses for sale for less than $120,000, but they tend to need a lot of work, she said.
During Badman’s housing searches, she would find condos for less than $100,000 that appeared in her price range, she said. But once wind and flood insurance were added on, as well as homeowner association fees, the condos became out of reach, she said.
It’s not that the housing is more expensive than The Woodlands or Houston, but the salaries don’t reflect the costs, Badman said.
“The salaries on the island aren’t comparable to Houston or even Clear Creek,” Badman said.
Jeff Murdock, president of the Galveston Municipal Police Association, rents on the island, but feels increasingly “priced out,” he said.
“The taxes and insurance are extremely high, and in itself is cost prohibitive,” Murdock said.
Rising housing costs — including the sale price and insurance — have, over the years, driven some island workers out of the community in search of larger inventory of newer construction and cheaper rents, said Patricia Bolton-Legg, president of the Galveston Housing Corporation board.
The corporation has tried to increase the stock of moderately priced homes on the island by building and selling homes below local market value, she said. Earlier this month, the group had a tour of five homes it’s building on 34th and Winnie streets.
Once completed, the homes will be eligible for sale to families with a household income between $31,746 and $57,200 annually, according to the corporation.
For lower income workers, including hourly workers in the island’s tourism industry, the housing market is even more challenging, said Ted Hanley, the executive director of The Jesse Tree and a longtime social services worker.
Along with real estate costs, residents have anecdotally noted increases in monthly costs for rental properties. And rooms or small inexpensive apartments are difficult to find for temporary and seasonal workers in the tourism and seafaring community, Hanley said.
The challenges of finding inexpensive places to rent, seasonally or year-round, has historically been an issue, Hanley said.
But increasingly, those difficulties also extend to people and families who earn wages closer to what is considered middle income, said Steve McIntyre, an organizer of the annual Living Wage Conference hosted in Galveston.
“It’s now harder for middle-income folks to find a decent house on the island,” McIntyre said.
A rule of thumb provided by the federal housing department is to keep rent costs less than a third of a person’s monthly income, McIntyre said.
The median household income in Galveston averaged between 2012 and 2016 was about $42,000 a year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The rule of thumb for home buying is closer to two-and-a-half times a person’s annual income to have extra money available for costly repairs and taxes, according to the housing department.
“How many houses are for rent or for sale at those prices?” McIntyre said. “The spectrum and market is changing.”
The University of Texas Medical Branch, seeking to add more hospital beds in League City, is planning a $148 million expansion of its hospital just as the MD Anderson center clinic and a parking structure near completion.
Construction of a planned five-story hospital expansion can begin now that the university’s board of regents on Tuesday approved the second phase of the expansion, officials said.
The new expansion will allow the hospital at 2240 Interstate 45 to add 60 more beds, for a total of 97 at the League City campus.
“The League City market is growing rapidly,” said Mike Shriner, medical branch vice president of business operations and facilities.
The new $79 million MD Anderson center clinic at the campus will be completed by September, but staff will move in sooner and begin seeing patients this summer, spokeswoman Julie Penne said.
MD Anderson also is part of the University of Texas System.
The $30 million parking structure with 740 stalls will be complete by June or July, Shriner said.
“They finished pouring the upper floors in the last 30 days,” Shriner said.
Crews also are nearly finished with a covered walkway that connects the parking structure to the hospital. The MD Anderson center clinic also is connected to the main hospital building on the campus.
The medical branch and University of Texas System in 2015 announced the MD Anderson development that would bring the world-renowned cancer treatment closer to county residents.
The treatment center marks the first-ever clinical collaboration between the sister institutions, while strengthening the medical branch’s ever growing League City presence.
The development also is part of a larger trend of prominent Houston health care providers — once mainly clustered in the Texas Medical Center — extending their reach to suburban markets.
The medical branch has found success in League City. Its most recent expansion includes adding a five-story wing to the existing hospital, Shriner said.
“It could be built up to 12 stories in the future,” Shriner said. “We could expand to as many as 350 beds if needed.”
The hospital will have 171,000 square feet of built space by March 2020, Shriner said.
The interior buildout of the MD Anderson center clinic should be completed by September or October, but the clinic staff and their equipment will start moving in about July, Penne said.
The clinic will phase in patient care starting in July, Penne said.
Galveston-based Hensel Phelps Construction Co. managed the parking structure project and will manage the new five-story expansion, Shriner said.
Houston-based Linbeck Group is the contractor for the MD Anderson center clinic, Penne said.
The medical branch hospital and its emergency room opened at the Victory Lakes site in June 2016. That initial project cost $82 million, officials said at the time.
Memorial Hermann Convenient Care Center, 2555 Interstate 45, opened in February, not far from the medical branch campus.
League City economic development boosters refer to the cluster of medical branch, MD Anderson and Memorial Hermann hospital facilities on Interstate 45 as a hub to attract support businesses and research companies.
Tom Linklater, co-chairman of the League City Comprehensive Master Plan Task Force, likes to call it a medical village.
“Health care is our No. 1 target,” Linklater said.
The county’s appraisal district is reassessing homes and businesses damaged during Hurricane Harvey before sending out April notices of property valuations, officials said.
Appraisers for the Galveston Central Appraisal District have so far visited about 4,500 homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey, Chief Appraiser Tommy Watson said. The district also been using mapping and data provided by cities to predict how much damage a property might have from the storm to adjust its appraisal, he said.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas Coast on Aug. 25, causing days of heavy rain and flooding across the region, which damaged an estimated 21,000 homes and businesses, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
After the storm, some elected officials rallied for reappraisals before the start of the new year when appraisals would typically be completed.
But hard-hit cities and the county commissioners court declined to take up disaster reappraisals in the fall, arguing it would be too expensive and wouldn’t make sense when the district planned to reappraise properties in the new year.
Watson had quoted reappraisals before the end of the year at about $22 per property. Reappraisals this year will not cost local governments additional money, Watson said.
The decision to wait to appraise the homes became a hot issue in already contentious county primaries.
Appraisers are reassessing demolished properties at about 25 percent of their previous value, Watson said. The land value does not change in most areas, Watson said.
The district also was looking at sales prices, Watson said. Many property owners listed their homes “as is” out of necessity or to avoid dealing with insurance or expenses and the stress of rebuilding, he said.
“We have a lot of houses going ‘as is’ and those are about a 40 percent reduction,” Watson said.
The district has used maps of and visits to neighborhoods as tools to decide what kind of damage people likely had at their properties, Watson said. If a house had water in the yard up to the door but not inside, the valuation will not be reduced, Watson said.
The appraisal district would reassess properties that had been damaged, but residents who had started rebuilding would get credit for the prior damage, Watson said.
“If they’ve rebuilt and got it all fixed up, we’re still going to give them credit,” Watson said.
As of Thursday, the district had received about 1,000 damage reports from residents, Watson said. The district established an email address to take in damage reports, which Watson recommended residents with Harvey damage do.
The district expected to have new appraisals done in early April, he said.