Lawmakers beef up school safety grant fund to pay for masks, gloves in pandemic

Harrisburg High School
Schools like Harrisburg High School will be able to use money from the state's School Safety Grant Fund for pandemic supplies and mental health programs this fall. (Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

A competitive grant program created in the wake of a deadly school shooting is set to receive a record-high windfall of state and federal aid this year, which lawmakers say will help schools confront a new kind of threat in the fall: the spread of COVID-19. 

A series of bills that state lawmakers advanced Thursday will allocate a combined $215 million to Pennsylvania’s School Safety and Security Grant Program, which since 2018 has helped schools finance security equipment upgrades and safety programs.

This year, though, schools can use the funds to purchase cleaning supplies, masks and gloves, and to finance mental health programs to help students and staff cope with the pandemic.

Just a sliver of the program’s funding is slated to come from the stopgap state budget that state lawmakers sent to Gov. Tom Wolf Thursday. Most of it will come from the $3.9 federal aid package that Pennsylvania received from the Congressional CARES Act this spring. 

A bill that the House and Senate approved Thursday, which allocates $2.6 billion of Pennsylvania’s CARES dollars, shores up the grant program with a $150 million appropriation.

Another bill, which makes changes to the state school code, also instructs the state Department of Education to allocate $50 million of its CARES money to the grant program. Senate leaders said that sum will be distributed to schools using a need-based formula.

That code bill won approval in the Senate Thursday and awaits a vote in the House.

The General Assembly created the School Safety Grant Fund in 2018, months after a shooter killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 

Since then, the fund has awarded roughly $60 million in competitive grants annually to help schools buy metal detectors, security cameras and other equipment, and to finance crisis training for teachers. 

State Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, who wrote the legislation creating the program, told the Capital-Star that the additional cash would be “a boon” to districts as they return to classrooms this fall. 

“Whether it’s used for cleaning or retrofitting [facilities] or hiring counselors, I think the money coming from the federal government is going to be very helpful,” Regan said. 

The $25.8 billion budget lawmakers approved this week authorized five months of flat funding for all state programs except public education, which received 12 months of funding at the same levels of last year. 

That drew criticism from some Democratic lawmakers, who said stagnant state aid amounts to a cut for districts that may see local revenue sources plummet from COVID-19-related business shutdowns and job losses.  

Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, who voted against the budget, said he was “disappointed” that lawmakers did not provide more funding for public education.

Education advocates also questioned why lawmakers chose to route $200 million in federal aid dollars through a grant program that requires schools to compete for funds, when it could distribute the money through the state’s school funding formula that awards more aid to needier districts. 

“There’s no question that substantial funding is needed to reopen schools safely for children to return — cleaning them, providing personal protective equipment, and addressing any other environmental hazards,” Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, said in an emailed statement. “But [Pennsylvania’s education funding] formula shouldn’t be circumvented in awarding millions of federal grant dollars.”

Regan said that earmarking money for safety measures has proven popular with schools in the past.

The safety fund has exhausted all of its funds in each of the two years it has accepted grant applications. 

But the fate of the grant program was controversial even before COVID-19 walloped Pennsylvania in March. 

In his February budget address to the General Assembly, Wolf proposed funding the program at $15 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year that begins July 1 — just a third of what the program received in the state’s current, approved spending plan. 

Republican lawmakers quickly homed in on the line item and vowed to restore it to its current funding level. 

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, stood by the allocations while speaking to reporters Thursday, saying that the program has “worked very well in the past” as a vehicle for getting money to school districts.