School Safety Grants Stir Controversy
Critics charge Attorney General Schimel has mishandled grants from $100 million fund.
The first school-safety grants from a $100-million fund approved by Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature don’t provide enough mental health training and wrongly subsidize church-run schools, critics say.
State Department of Justice (DOJ) records show that, of 750 applications for safety grants submitted by individual schools and school districts, 200 totaling $16.5 million have been approved so far.
Initial grants ranged from $993,033 for the Madison School District to $5,625 for the North Lake School District. Hundreds of other applications — including a request for $3.14 million from Milwaukee Public Schools — are pending.
Attorney General Brad Schimel was scheduled to announce another $3.5 million in grants to 52 school districts at a news conference today. Officials from more than 20 school districts were expected to attend.
Walker and legislators set aside $100 million after school shootings, including the Feb. 14 rampage in Parkland, Fla., high school that killed 17 kids and adults. Although Democratic legislators demanded tougher gun purchase and possession laws, Walker and Republican legislators instead set aside $100 million to make schools safer and provide mental health training for school faculty.
The DOJ, run by Schimel, a Republican campaigning for a second term on Nov. 6, approves school safety grants. DOJ said it consulted with several statewide school and safety organizations on criteria for the grants. But two Democrats – one running for governor and one who wants Schimel’s job – say the $100 million should pay for more mental health programs.
Specifically, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who is running for governor, said more money should be used for:
*Community/school mental health grants: Evers said school district administrators asked for $8 million to pay for more mental health services for students, but only $3.2 million is available.
*Hiring school social workers: Only $3 million was budgeted to meet needs that total $14 million, Evers said. “Use your authority” as attorney general to fund these programs, Evers challenged Schimel.
Responding, DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said, “Mental health training has been the cornerstone of DOJ’s grant program … and will continue to be.”
Koremenos noted that school districts, to qualify for a grant, must either have had or will have all teachers, aides, counselors and administrators undergo three hours of specialized mental health training by the end of the next school year.
Koremenos added: “This first phase of the grant program is bringing up Wisconsin schools to an important baseline security level. In the upcoming school year, front doors will be locked, entryway glass will be reinforced, school classrooms will be locked, cameras and communication devices will be installed, and schools will have defined visitor protocols.”
Evers “interjected” his run for governor into the school safety issue, Koremenos added.
Josh Kaul, the Democrat running against Schimel on Nov. 6, also challenged Schimel to use more of the $100 million for mental health programs. “Recent efforts to make our school safer are a first step but they are just that,” Kaul said in a statement. “We should be working to make schools safer by providing additional mental health programs.”
Kaul “does not understand how the law works or how grant programs are operated,” Koremenos said. The Legislature – and not the attorney general – budgets money for specific grants, Koremenos added.
But “taxpayer money should not be given via grants to private religious schools,” said Annie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “Money is fungible and if public grants are given to religious schools for building improvements, that frees up money that would otherwise have been spent in this manner for more explicitly religious use.“
Private school advocates say a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed a Lutheran school in Missouri to get shredded playground tires from a government agency means its legal to use state tax funds to make Wisconsin private schools safer.
But, Gaylor said, the Missouri case involved a different issue. “Here, the state is funding improvements to buildings that are used for religious instruction and worship – something the Supreme Court has never allowed. Churches and private schools are responsible for such improvements, not taxpayers.”
In a WisconsinEye interview, Schimel defended safety grants going to private schools. “We’re not sanctioning that you’re Catholic, Lutheran or Jewish – that has nothing to do with it,” Schimel said.
“You’re a school recognized by the state Department of Public Instruction, therefore you qualify.”