ALBANY — State education officials have not sufficiently monitored school district safety plans, according to the conclusions of an audit from the state Comptroller’s Office.
School districts across the state are required to develop both districtwide and building-level safety plans, but the state Education Department did not do enough to ensure districts submitted plans to local police agencies, approved the plans annually or provided the public a chance to comment on the plans, the audit states.
The department has also failed to submit an annual report to the Legislature and governor about districts’ compliance with safety planning laws, even though the department has been required to do so since 2000.
“Absent sufficient oversight, the [Education] Department does not have assurance that school districts are meeting safety planning requirements,” according to the audit.
State education officials pushed back against some of the findings, arguing they are not safety experts and that they work closely with state police and other emergency response agencies to shore up school safety.
During the 2017-2018 school year, safety plans for 99 percent of the state’s school buildings were submitted to state police. In a response to the audit report, Education Department officials wrote that the state police informed them local police agencies can access the system that contains the plans.
“It is important to note that, beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, the process for schools to submit building-level emergency response plans to state police was significantly improved through a joint project between the [Education] Department and state police,” Education Department officials wrote in a response to the aduit.
But auditors found that some local law enforcement agencies were unaware of the presence of the plans or unable to access them in a state database housing the plans for law enforcement.
State law requires that districts establish the safety plans, and Education Department regulations go further to mandate districts revisit the plans on an annual basis with board approval by Sept. 1, near the start of the school year. Those annual reviews are supposed to include a 30-day public comment period for residents to voice concerns about the plans. A portion of the concerns are made public, while others parts are kept secret for security purposes.
Auditors evaluated 14 school districts’ compliance with the law and regulations. They found that 12 of those districts did not have evidence of holding the 30-day-comment period; 9 district did not hold a public hearing; and districts did not approve safety plans on annual basis.
The Shenendehowa Central School District, the only Capital Region district evaluated as part of the audit, does review and update its districtwide emergency plan on an annual basis and the school board is asked to approve any changes, according to district meeting minutes.
The audit noted the state Education Department does not have any staff devoted full time to monitoring and assisting in district safety planning, but funding from a new federal grant will let the department hire someone for that purpose.
In its response, the Education Department said it would direct districts to annually approve safety plans as well as provide a chance for the public to comment on the plans. The department also said it planned to prepare and submit a report to state lawmakers about compliance with the safety planning law.