Published Online: March 15, 2011
Published in Print: March 16, 2011, as Budget Eliminates Emergency Grants; Districts Regroup

Budget Eliminates Emergency Grants; Districts Regroup

While working on her doctoral dissertation, Karen Z. Schulte learned Columbine High School had well-developed plans to handle crises—before the massacre.

But the Colorado school had never tested them. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be in the same boat,’ ” she said.

Now, as superintendent of the 10,000-student Janesville district in Wisconsin, Ms. Schulte has a grant from the federal government that paid for training school employees in how to react in an emergency.

But the source of that money, in the form of Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools grants from the federal office of safe and drug-free schools, has evaporated. After paying for hundreds of school districts to prepare the way Janesville did, the roughly $30 million grant program finds its future up in the air.

So far this fiscal year, the program, created after the tragedy at Columbine, hasn’t been funded, and for 2012, the president’s budget proposal includes just $6 million for state-level emergency-planning grants for schools.

The pot of money set aside each year since 2003 was small, considering the size of the federal education budget. Most grants were for $500,000 or less. Ms. Schulte said the district couldn’t have found the $250,000 it received in her own budget. What’s more, she said that even though the money was spent over 18 months, the training effects will last much longer.

The district hasn’t had to deal with a school shooting since winning that grant in 2008, but the plans helped staff members know exactly what to do when a chemical explosion occurred at a business near one campus, a sick fox ran loose on a school playground, and a plainclothes sheriff’s deputy showed up with a gun and demanded a particular student be allowed to leave school, she said.

“We knew how to work together, how to act as a team. We set up emergency phone trees. Now, parents get alerted by cellphone or e-mail within a minute when we send something out,” she said. “How many school districts take the time to talk about those things?”

What’s Essential?

Part of the reason for shifting away from small, district-level grants to larger state ones is to put in place more comprehensive emergency planning, said Jo Ann Webb, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. The 823 grants awarded through 2010 have reached that many school districts and more, because some filed joint applications, during the program’s eight-year history, but most of the country’s remaining districts couldn’t compete against the larger and more urban districts that won grants in the past. That hasn’t kept districts from trying: About 100 more grant applications than the usual 350 to 400 were filed during the program’s last year.

The department also recommended state-level grants because of a suggestion from the National Commission on Children and Disasters. In addition to the money for state grants, the 2012 budget proposal includes $2.2 million to keep a technical-assistance center on emergency planning running.

Education Department Funding

The U.S. Department of Education first awarded Readiness and Emergency Management Planning grants in 2003 so that school districts could draw up and improve plans to handle violent incidents, natural disasters, infectious-disease outbreaks, and other disturbances.

As the federal budget continues to shrink and competition for education dollars grows fiercer, it shouldn’t be surprising that even popular programs that haven’t raised eyebrows are being downsized, said Jack Jennings, the executive director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, a research and policy group.

“The rule of thumb is going to be programs that are good, but not essential, are going to be eliminated,” Mr. Jennings said. “There’s just going to be less money unless the economy turns around.”

Moreover, he said, some might argue that emergency planning is a function that should be handled at the local level. “Schools should be doing this as a matter of course.”

Priority on Safety

In Allen County, Ind., the director of school security for the 32,000-student Fort Wayne Community Schools agreed, in a sense.

“If kids are scared, they’re not learning,” said John H. Weicker, who is also a co-chairman of the Allen County school safety commission. But his district and three others in the county that banded together to apply for a grant in 2004 couldn’t have paid for many of the planning measures the grant afforded. They included creating digital floor plans of every school building in a centralized database. If there’s an emergency, those responding can know the layout of the building they are approaching, in detail, before they arrive.

After nine people were killed in the community during spring break in 2008, schools reopened at the end of the holiday without a hitch, although fearful students were urging each other to stay home, Mr. Weicker said.

“The fear was, this stuff is going to spill over,” he said. But having established strong ties with law enforcement years earlier because of the grant, high school principals, other district officials, and police met in advance to prepare for students’ return. School wasn’t canceled, and a huge police presence greeted the students when they arrived.

“Everybody knew we were in charge,” Mr. Weicker said of the school administration. “These grants were very important to public education. I hope to gosh somebody consulted with somebody on the front lines” before cutting the grants.

His district spent some of the money hiring Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland consulting firm.

Mr. Trump said he is outraged by the cuts in funding, emphasizing that it’s not because of a potential loss in business. “The sad reality is, my business increases when school resources decrease,” he said, because school districts become reactive after an event occurs instead of spending less money on planning.

Despite the pinch districts are feeling, cutting back on security won’t happen, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

“School security is still a high priority for schools,” Mr. Domenech said. “That program is cut, but so is everything else. That does not mean school districts are shortchanging their security budgets at all. That’s an area you don’t touch.”

Although the grant money is gone, the program’s legacy will carry on—to an extent.

After using its $630,000 grant to create a floor-plans database, train school employees, host parent workshops, and coordinate with local police agencies, the Roanoke district in Virginia hosted a training event for 11 neighboring districts.

About 200 people attended from districts that hadn’t applied for the grant, said Asia Jones, Roanoke’s executive director for student services.

“One of the takeaways was, you can have all the security systems, the cameras, restricted access,” she said. “It’s all about highly trained staff.”

Vol. 30, Issue 24, Pages 1,23

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