Schools under the gun to spend grant money on school police officers – Patriot

If marked state police cars is seen parked outside Northern Lebanon School District buildings on a daily basis between now and the end of the year, there’s no need for concern or sign of trouble. 

Susquehanna Twp. High School resource officer Jill RoweView full sizeGrants awarded to 81 school districts or municipalities will enable more schools to maintain a police presence, but one superintendent worries the way the grant program is structured it may encourage unnecessary and possibly wasteful spending.

The school district is just trying to spend as much of a state grant it received for a school resource officer in the remaining four and a half months left in this school year so it is eligible to receive a grant more in line with what it has been spending for in-school police presence.

Northern Lebanon was one of the 81 schools and municipalities that were awarded a combined total of $3.9 million in school safety grants, according to a news release issued on Thursday by Corbett and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County.

Scarnati led the charge in the Legislature to secure funding in this year’s budget for the school safety grants. His efforts were in direct response to the December 2012 mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn. to ensure Pennsylvania schools had the greatest level of security possible. 

The grants are structured in a way that requires recipients to spend up to $60,000 for a school resource officer and up to $40,000 for a school police officer in this school year. Pending available funding in the 2014-15 state budget they will receive 50 percent of their grant amount next year without reapplying.

Northern Lebanon’s Superintendent Don Bell said he welcomes the grant money, but just wishes it could be spent over a longer time frame.

Bell figures the maximum $90,000 that his district is eligible to receive over the next two years is enough to pay for three years’ worth of the amount of police presence district schools now receive from the Pennsylvania State Police.

Troopers are in district schools for 10 hours a week, plus at some extra-curricular activities.

But now Bell said he is looking at having to double up the time and/or number of troopers in schools just to spend the $60,000 this year so he is sure the district qualifies for $30,000 next year – which he said is what the district now spends for in-school police services for an entire school year.

“Schools need safety and security but to do it in this format, it creates more challenges and borders on spending that is not needed,” Bell said. 

Scarnati’s policy and legislative affairs director Casey Long, who worked with the state Department of Education and Office of School Safety to develop the grant program’s guidelines, said Bell’s complaint about the grant program is ridiculous.

“They can provide more protection for their students and teachers with state money and they are not paying anything out of school district funds,” Long said.

He said the grant money can be used to reimburse schools or municipalities for what they  spent on school resource or police officers since the beginning of this school year as well as to pay upfront for police services that may not be provided until the next school year.

“In Superintendent Bell’s world, Harrisburg is the root of all problems even when we’re providing a solution to this district by trying to protect students and teachers,” Long said.

But Bell isn’t alone in thinking the structure of the grant program is rather odd.

Northern York County Regional Police Chief Mark Bentzel said the timeframe for this grant program is rather compressed “but far be it from me to complain if somebody wants to give us money.”

His police department was awarded $60,000 this year as well – and is eligible to receive $30,000 next year – to station a school resource officer on the Dover Area School District campus.

That, of course, assumes Dover’s recently reorganized school board and newly seated interim superintendent agree to that arrangement the previous board and superintendent approved. Bentzel said that approval isn’t a given considering the district officials’ concerns about how to pay for this arrangement once the grant funding goes away.

If the district agrees, though, Bentzel said he’s not sure all $60,000 can be spent this school year given the way the police department sells its service in 10-hour incremental units.

“Everybody who does grant work knows you have to show good financial tracking of the money. I don’t know what we’d buy if we had an extra $10,000 to spend but if somebody really pushes, we’ll figure something out,” he said.

Newville Police Department also secured a $60,000 grant to station a school resource officer at Big Spring High School. That officer will have a patrol car to visit other district schools as well.

Borough police Chief Randy Finkey said this arrangement will build on the services his department has provided to Big Spring for over 25 years. His department is in the process of hiring an eighth officer now to free up time for an officer to spend his or her days in the schools.

He said he hadn’t yet seen the stipulations on how soon the grant money had to be spent and could not comment on that.

He, Bentzel and Bell all support the grant program’s intent to place police officers in schools. They said the officers teach classes on safety and other topics on occasion and build relationships with students, along with responding to incidents that require an officer’s intervention.

But Bell said “a great idea with poor implementation equals
wasteful spending. The solution is more clear: make this a
three-year program and that will eliminate the poor implementation plan
of the state.”

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