By Robert Swift
HARRISBURG (Feb. 5) – An early state budget debate is brewing over the future of state grants provided to school districts to pay for a range of projects to improve student safety.
Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020-21 shows a $45 million, or 75-percent reduction, in grant money available for the School Safety and Security Fund from the current fiscal year.
Two Republican senators were quick to criticize this proposal, with Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Sen. Dave Argall, R-Schuylkill, issuing statements lambasting the cut after Wolf's budget address on Tuesday.
“Let me make this prediction,” said Argall. “House and Senate Republicans and Democrats will work on a bipartisan basis to reverse the Governor's irresponsible and dangerous cuts to school safety funding.”
Argall said he has held statewide roundtable discussions that show how important investing in school safety is.
It's possible this issue could be resolved under the umbrella of “legislative add-ons,”which are spending items that the Governor and General Assembly negotiate closer to the budget passage deadline on June 30 – a prospect raised by Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott on Wednesday in his response to the GOP senators.
Abbott said protecting kids is the governor's top priority, observing that $105 million has been provided to provide metal detectors and other security upgrades at schools.
“Gov. Wolf also would support additional funds for these programs, including using legislative reserves,” said Abbott.
This comment refers to the safety and security fund's unusual funding setup during its first year of operation.
The safety fund was established in 2018, a result of a bipartisan compromise considered a significant accomplishment of the FY2018-19 budget.
The fund was supported that year by a three-way financing setup using $30 million from the House and Senate (taken from legislative reserves that had been subject of a court fight with former Gov. Tom Corbett) and $15 million from the executive branch. An additional $15 million in court fees is directed annually to the fund under the enabling law.
A $45 million transfer from state Personal Income Tax revenues has supported the fund this fiscal year along with the $15 million transfer in court fees, according to an analysis by the House Democratic Appropriations Committee.
Wolf's budget proposes to zero out the PIT revenue transfer to the safety and security fund, and he wants to direct the $15 million in court fees to fund mental health services and school counselors.
“Gov. Wolf's proposal is to prioritize $15 million towards mental health services for students, including more counselors and social workers,” said Abbott.
The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) oversees the safety and security fund, and awarded $40 million in grants last April to 234 recipients, including school districts, charter schools and intermediate units. The grants can be used for nearly two dozen specific purposes ranging from building security upgrades to paying salaries of school psychologists and counselors.
Wolf also proposes to keep funding at $11 million for a separate and older School Safety Initiative
under the state Education Department.
The governor's proposals regarding the safety and security fund are technically separate from his proposals to address gun violence problems. He wants to provide $6 million to the PCCD for gun violence prevention and reduction grants and $4 million to a Gun Violence Task Force in Philadelphia.
But Abbott drew a connection.
“The Governor also believes action must be taken to stop gun violence at the root,” he said.