Two visions of school safety dominate House and Senate hearings

Department of Education officials testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Feb. 27.

As they grilled Pennsylvania’s top education officials in budget hearings, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Harrisburg both said the state needs to put aside more money to improve school safety. 

The stance could be a rare spot of consensus in the state’s months-long budget negotiations — if it not for a persistent, partisan disagreement over what threats demand attention and money from the General Assembly.

Legislative Republicans are calling on the Wolf administration to abandon proposed cuts to a school safety grant program, which helps schools fortify themselves against violent intruders. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are calling for a massive infusion of cash to address less visible threats: lead, asbestos, mold and other toxins lurking in Pennsylvania’s aging school buildings.

Lawmakers from both parties framed their proposals as a way to make schools safer for Pennsylvania’s 2 million-plus school children.

But as state appropriators embark on the months-long project of drafting Pennsylvania’s new annual budget, it’s possible that one vision of safety might be funded at the expense of the other. 

“This is an evolving [issue] right now,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, told the Capital-Star on Thursday, noting that discussions of school safety in the Capitol have traditionally centered around dangers posed by intruders and criminals.

Anxiety over school security spiked after a 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla. high school left 17 people dead. 

Pennsylvania’s General Assembly responded by creating a new grant program to help schools buy security equipment. 

Schools submitted more than $300 million in requests the first year, far exceeding the $45 million in available funds. They used the money to purchase security cameras, bulletproof doors and windows, and new communication systems, according to a WHYY-FM analysis of grant reports.

Two years after that program launched, Gov. Tom Wolf says it’s time to retire the grants and encourage schools to invest in counselors, social workers and mental health programs. 

The proposal to cut the grant funding from $60 million to $15 million has drawn persistent criticism from legislative Republicans since Wolf presented his budget proposal on Feb. 4.

They made that opposition clear in hearings with Department of Education officials in a Senate hearing on Thursday, and again in a House hearing Monday. 

“We ought not to be blowing [this program] up,”  Sen. David Argall, R-Schuykill, said Thursday, when the Department of Education had a budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Cutting [this] program by 75 percent … sends a very bad message.”

But as schools across the Commonwealth find lead in their drinking water and close their doors for asbestos remediation, Wolf and his fellow Democrats are also calling for a broader look at the dangers children might face in the classroom.

Wolf proposed setting aside $1 billion in state infrastructure grants this year to help schools eradicate toxic contaminants. 

Legislative Democrats touted that proposal when it was their turn to address Department of Education officials, who appeared before the Senate on Thursday and the House on Monday. 

“This is a statewide crisis,” Sen. Vince Hughes, of Philadelphia, and the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said Thursday. “When we mandate in state law that children attend school 180 days a year, we are mandating that they go to toxic schools.”

Sen. Bob Mensch, R-Montgomery, expressed sympathy for districts that are facing hefty bills from lead and asbestos remediation.

But he also suggested that prudent budgeting can help them manage major building projects.  

He said that schools in his suburban district have been able to remediate lead and should serve as a “model” for districts, like Philadelphia, that can’t keep up with remediation efforts as fast as they’re finding toxins.

Wolf’s $1 billion remediation proposal would require the General Assembly to authorize an increase on the Commonwealth’s debt limit. 

Browne said that would be a hard sell to Republicans who lead the budget negotiations.

“This is first time a [governor] has advanced this significant a proposal,” Browne said. “We’re going to take a real thorough look at it.”

Map: 100 Pa. schools found lead in their drinking water. Here’s how they responded.