$32 Billion State Budget Renews Security for Jewish Day Schools

What has been a contentious will-they, won’t-they battle in the Pennsylvania General Assembly has now given many a brief sigh of relief.

A threat to cut funding for school security in the 2018 fiscal year — specifically reaching Jewish day schools across the state — has now been put back in the education section of the budget.

“In the wake of bomb threats, religiously motivated vandalism and other anti-Semitic attacks, the Pennsylvania legislature should be looking to increase and expand the Safe Schools Targeted Grants program, rather than eliminate it,” wrote Arielle Frankston-Morris, director of Teach PA, a project of the Orthodox Union.

The general appropriations budget reached $32 billion June 30.

Pennsylvania House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leadership agreed to the budget, which was passed by the House and Senate 173-27 and 43-7, respectively.

“After years of devastating education cuts, we have restored more than $800 million in education funding,” Wolf said in a statement. “This budget represents one of the most significant investments in schools in our lifetime. And we passed a fair funding formula, taking Pennsylvania off a shameful list of states without a way to fairly fund their schools.

“This budget invests over $175 million more in our schools. Over the past two years, we’ve restored more than $800 million in cuts to schools.”

Although the spending package has been agreed upon, how it will be ultimately divided and designated is still to be determined.

However, the school security funding has been restored, which helps Jewish day schools and other private and public schools across the state provide campus security.

The statewide Safe Schools Targeted Grants program by the Department of Education has a $3.9 million budget. Schools are eligible for an individual grant of $60,000 for a school resource officer or $40,000 for a school police officer.

“This was a really tough budget year because this is the largest deficit for the state since the recession, so all of these programs being threatened to be cut — and this whole program was completely cut in the House budget — have now been restored,” said Frankston-Morris. “This was something that the Teach Advocacy network spearheaded to restore.”

Funds will be appropriated this week for numerous packages, like the security grant and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs, which subsidize tuitions for Jewish day schools.

Stuart Gasner, executive director of Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, said the school just completed its first year of the two-year security grant, in which it received $40,000. The next school year will be subsidized with a $20,000 grant.

For schools in their third year — Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia also received the security grant — no funds are provided.

The format from last year’s budget has been renewed with the same amounts for this fiscal year.

“It essentially helps pay for the school police officer,” he said. “[The grant] goes right to the needs of our school, and not even adding something extra. It’s something that we’re doing anyway.”

Kohelet Yeshiva High School security officer Russell Long — also a retired Philadelphia patrol officer — was honored by the school with an appreciation award for his commitment to protecting the campus. | Photo provided
Per the requirements, the guard must be a past police officer and go through extra training.

Other statewide grants have gone toward equipment, Gasner noted, but this is the only one he’s heard of that covers the cost of a security guard.

“Equipment’s great, but you still need somebody to be there to make sure that you’re safe,” he added.

On a daily basis, the guard, Russell Long, a retired Philadelphia patrol officer, monitors the Kohelet Yeshiva campus. All visitors must go through him first.

Gasner added that having this grant allows the school to be financially responsible in its budget, as overall security costs can get pricey.

“We can offer a very high level of safety for our students [while], at the same time, trying to not curb many costs and trying to keep our finances in check. It’s a balance,” he said.

School security has taken the forefront in other states. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved $40 million to allow nonpublic schools to hire security guards and purchase security equipment.

In New Jersey, the state provides $50 of security funding per every nonpublic school student.

The Kohelet Yeshiva guard also leads all emergency drills, something that impacted the school earlier this year during the nationwide bomb threats against JCCs and Jewish schools.

Although Kohelet Yeshiva was not targeted, Gasner said having the guard added an extra level of security.

“It’s not just sitting at a desk and greeting people. There’s a constant vigilance that our guard does for our campus,” he said. “We definitely feel safe that you have somebody there whose sole job is to make sure that we’re safe. It’s really helpful to have that sense of security.

“Often people take for granted how great what our commonwealth offers,” he continued. “I don’t think we should take for granted that it just happens. Most states don’t have this.”