After huge demand, state senator wants Pa. to budget $125 million for school safety grants

(Fabrice Florin/Wikimedia Commons)

When Pennsylvania lawmakers created a school safety grant program last year, school administrators jumped at the chance to fund new equipment, security personnel, and student mental health services.

The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, which administers the School Safety and Security Grant Program, received $330 million in grant requests, a spokesperson said Wednesday. But it had just a little over $40 million to dole out.

Sen. Mike Regan, who spearheaded the state’s school safety program last year, said those figures show how desperately districts across Pennsylvania need money to secure their campuses.

That’s why Regan, R-Cumberland, wants the state to increase funding for two grant programs to $125 million in the new fiscal year, which starts on July 1.

He’d like to see $100 million of that allocation go to the School Safety and Security Grant Program, and $25 million to the Department of Education’s Safe Schools grants.

Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed funding those programs at $45 million and $10 million, respectively, in the state’s 2019-20 budget.

But Regan said that’s not nearly enough money to meet the demand among Pennsylvania’s schools.

“I’m trying to make a within-reason request,” Regan said during an interview in his Capitol office Wednesday. But given the $330 million in requests last year, the current funding level “is short.”

Regan’s party has opposed gun-control measures that Democrats say could prevent school shootings. Bills that would permit the temporary seizure of firearms from people in crisis, for instance, or require universal background checks on firearm purchases, have yet to advance through Republican-controlled committees.

Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott said Wednesday that the governor has supported school safety funding initiatives. But he said the exact allocation for this year’s programs would be brokered out in budget negotiations this month.

“[Last year’s] funding was clearly desperately needed for schools,” Abbott said. “This will be a budget issue.”

But some policy questions may linger after the General Assembly and the governor’s office agree on funding.

For instance, Regan wants to amend the Safe Schools program this year to make a larger share of its funds available to private schools. He’s also proposed changing current policies that prevent private schools from applying for the program’s equipment grants.

“We’ve heard from a lot of private schools that are alarmed by this, most notably Jewish schools,” Regan said. “We’d ask that the [funding] be opened up so they can use it for whatever they want.”

Regan said he’d also like to change the way all school safety grants are awarded “to more equitably share how the money is distributed.”

That’s welcome news to Larry Feinberg, a 20-year school board director in Haverford Township, Delaware County, who said a competitive grant process is likely to reward affluent schools with grant writers.

Feinberg said one alternative would be to allocate school safety funds as budget line-items according to a need-based funding formula. That would also make it easier for districts to budget for recurring expenses, he said, such as salaries for school counselors and psychologists.

“I think if you were to poll school administrators and school board directors, the overwhelming majority would prefer to see us getting money for counselors and social workers to look at mental health issues,” Feinberg said.

But since the state’s school safety grants provide a one-time infusion of funds, districts may hesitate to hire personnel whose salaries aren’t guaranteed in subsequent years, Feinberg said.

Last year, Regan’s school safety program was incorporated into the state’s 2018-19 budget as amendments to the state’s school code and as line-items in the commonwealth’s spending plan.

The same thing could happen this year, as Regan is sponsoring another amendment to Pennsylvania’s school code. That bill, which is currently awaiting consideration in the Senate, creates new training requirements for school security personnel and eliminates technical roadblocks that exist under current law.

Regan said those technicalities emerged after the school safety program went into effect. Among the issues is a clause that the Department of Education says prohibits school security guards from carrying firearms.

Regan wants to eliminate that provision, as well as one that prevents schools from hiring former sheriffs and police officers as school resource officers.

He’s also proposed striking out a line in the law that prohibits school security guards from engaging in programs with children.

“It’s so important for these guys to be able to interact with the students because they are intelligence gatherers more so than anything else,” Regan said on the Senate floor during a June 4 discussion of his bill.

His bill faced scrutiny that day from Democrats, who called on Regan to tighten language they said would enable untrained officers to carry firearms on school grounds — a concern shared by Wolf and the Department of Education, spokespeople confirmed Wednesday.

Regan, a former U.S. Marshal, said the intent of his bill is to provide more training for all school security personnel. Following questioning from Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, on the Senate floor Tuesday, he said his office would “entertain further amendments” to define crucial terms in the bill.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which represents elected school board officials, and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, both declined to comment on Regan’s bill this week.

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