A new federal grant program and a Web resource announced this month will help schools better prepare for an emergency, such as a terrorist act, violent incident, or natural disaster, Bush administration officials say.
“I know how important emergency planning is,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige, a former superintendent of the Houston school district, said in unveiling the new initiatives. “Schools are part of the community. They must be part of the community’s emergency plan.”
Mr. Paige said the message to school and community leaders is: “If you don’t have a plan, get one. If you have one, practice it.”
He was joined by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge in making the school security announcements March 7 at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington.
The address of the new material online, part of the Department of Education’s Web site, is www.ed.gov/emergencyplan.
“This Web site ... will include expert advice on how schools can prepare for an emergency,” Mr. Paige said at the briefing.
The new resource, Secretary Ridge added, is intended to complement ready.gov, the site unfurled recently by the new Department of Homeland Security.
Secretary Paige said the Education Department would award $30 million in grants this summer to help districts improve and strengthen emergency-response and crisis-management plans. That amount was included in the agency’s fiscal 2003 appropriation approved as part of a federal spending package last month.
The federal money for emergency planning, according to a department press release, could be used to train school personnel, parents, and students in crisis management; coordinate with local emergency responders; purchase equipment; and coordinate with agencies and organizations responsible for recovery measures.
But even as the administration was trumpeting the imminent availability of this grant money, critics complained the agency still hadn’t released $9 million for school emergency preparedness that, at least theoretically, could have gone to districts last year. That amount was included in the budget for fiscal 2002, which ended Sept. 30.
In that budget, Congress also made available up to $1 million to help the department draft and disseminate recommendations and models to help communities prepare for emergencies.
The $9 million will be combined with the fiscal 2003 grant dollars in the new program, said William Modzeleski, the associate deputy undersecretary for the department’s new office of safe and drug-free schools. However, while he clarified that “at least” $30 million would be awarded to districts, the total would not necessarily be $39 million. The fiscal 2003 budget allows some flexibility for where the new money is spent, he said.
The 2002 budget gave the Education Department some extra time, until Sept. 30 of this year, to spend the emergency-preparedness money appropriated in the last fiscal year.
As to why the $9 million in grant money is still at the department, Mr. Modzeleski said federal officials have not yet completed a guide they are writing to help districts and communities with crisis planning. That document will likely be ready in a couple of weeks, he said in a March 11 interview.
“The prudent [course of action] is to have the crisis model plan [ready],” said Mr. Modzeleski. “That will be used as the basis for the [grant] program.” He said that schools would not have to exactly follow that model, but that it would provide some direction.
“You have schools literally going in a thousand different directions” on emergency planning, he said. Mr. Modzeleski had encouraged schools last month to review their security plans after federal authorities temporarily raised the nation’s terror-alert status. (“As Alert Issued, Schools Urged to Review Security,” Feb. 19, 2003.)
The department is still working out how the competitive-grant money will be distributed.
“We’re in the process of developing the selection criteria,” Mr. Modzeleski said.
Some critics say they would have expected the agency to move faster on the $9 million for fiscal 2002, especially given the widespread concern about potential new terrorist attacks in the United States.
“This delay begs the question of why the safe and drug-free schools office would sit on dollars allocated by Congress which should have been put on the front lines helping educators to better protect their schools a year ago,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.
A House Democratic aide, who requested anonymity, also expressed concern that none of the fiscal 2002 money had gone out yet, but suggested the delay might be part of a larger problem.
“There’s huge disappointment and frustration with the department in getting grants out, period,” the aide said. In fact, the House-Senate conference report accompanying the fiscal 2003 budget makes clear that not just Democrats feel that way.
“The conferees are concerned about the delay applicants are experiencing in receiving awards under grant programs and therefore request that the department provide a report within 60 days of enactment of this bill on the steps that it can take to reduce the delay in administering grant competitions,” the bipartisan report says. That would make the deadline April 21.
For example, the agency still has not issued any of the $142 million in grant money made available in fiscal 2002 for the Smaller Learning Communities Program, which is aimed at helping large high schools break up into smaller components. The most recent update from the Education Department’s Web site says the grant applications will be available this month.
Congress itself may not have helped matters. The fiscal 2002 budget was finished two months behind schedule. And the fiscal 2003 budget, completed in early February, ran four months late.
Ready, Not Afraid
President Bush is requesting an additional $30 million for school emergency-planning grants in fiscal 2004, which begins Oct. 1.
But the same budget plan, released in February, would cut $50 million in state grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program. The Education Department’s budget summary says the $470 million state-grants program has “weaknesses” that need to be addressed.
That proposal also has spurred some consternation.
“Now is not the time to cut school safety,” said Mr. Trump, the security consultant. “Many schools rely on those [funds] because there’s nowhere else in the school district to pull resources.”
At the press conference on the school safety initiatives this month, Blair High School Principal Phillip Gainous said his school and community have taken steps to be ready.
“We understand the importance of coordinated and well- practiced plans for emergencies,” he said. “We also know how important it is to maintain a strong, cooperative relationship with first responders and government agencies.”
Speaking more broadly about the new environment schools and communities around the nation face, Secretary Ridge said: “Terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be ready, or we can be afraid. Americans aren’t afraid of anything. So we’ll just be ready.”