Beverly Middle School

Students flood into the school during the first day at the new Beverly Middle School. Beverly officials say they began looking at enhanced school security measures during construction of the new school, but it's unclear from the vaguely worded information that was before the City Council which schools would be receiving any upgrades and what those measures would be. (Staff file photo)

BEVERLY — The city is planning to spend $3.75 million to increase school security, but officials are refusing to provide any information about those plans.

Mayor Mike Cahill said he is keeping the plans secret in order to protect students and teachers.

"This is all about keeping teachers and the kids and the staff safe in the event of a really bad incident," he said.

The City Council voted on Monday night to approve the $3.75 million in spending. The only information available to the public was the description on the agenda of the mayor's request for "funding to enhance security and communication systems within our schools."

When a resident attending the meeting asked for details, Cahill said he could not provide any.

"Unfortunately, this is one of those items that is just so sensitive, based on the security concerns and needs of protecting our kids and our teachers, that the details, the specifics, can't be talked about in a public forum," Cahill said.

Cahill said officials have been discussing the plans for about a year, including in private executive sessions with both the School Committee and the City Council.

Jeff Pyle, an attorney with Prince Lobel in Boston, said an exemption to the public records law enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks allows municipalities to withhold information about the security of buildings if the information "could reasonably be expected to pose a threat to public safety."

But Pyle said the exemption "can't possibly justify withholding any information about what $4 million is being spent on by the city of Beverly."

As an example, Pyle said the city could disclose that it is installing doors with special locks without revealing how to open those locks.

"Not even the military operates with such secrecy about budget items," Pyle said. "We all know if they're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new plane. Sure it relates to security. But the public has a right to know how their money is being spent."

The Salem News has filed a public records request seeking the minutes of the executive sessions in which the security measures were discussed.

The city will pay for the security measures with $2 million from its free cash accounts, a $1.275 million loan, and $475,000 anticipated to be raised in taxes from "new growth" in the city.

Speaking at the City Council meeting, School Committee member Rachael Abell said she was concerned about the amount of money being requested for security. She asked councilors to "preserve funds for the health and well being of our students and community members."

"There are a number of additional priorities in our community that might be addressed with these one-time funds," Abell said.

School Committee member Lorinda Visnick said she applauded the city for its commitment to the safety of students and staff. But she also said she hopes the city will spend money on other school-related priorities, "including softening the insides of our schools, as opposed to specific hardening of the outsides of our schools."

Both Abell and Visnick said they were speaking as residents and parents, not as School Committee representatives.

Cahill said the city began exploring enhanced security measures for the city's eight public schools as it was building its new middle school. He said the city worked with security and construction consultants to come up with a plan.

"It was clear there were security features to newer schools that we want all of our schools to have," he said.

Cahill said the city is working with the state attorney general's office to hire a pre-approved contractor to do the work, without having to go through the public bidding process. He said he would like the work to begin "as soon as possible."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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