It’s the proverbial “free money,” but it comes with a catch.
Five Luzerne County School Districts won a total of $213,695 in state grants to hire, train and equip new school police officers, but districts must spend the money in the next five months. That leaves most districts looking for some flexibility from the state or for creative ways to meet the deadline while achieving their own goals.
Only Greater Nanticoke Area, which won $36,224, apparently had a clear plan to spend the money on time.
“We are going to contract with the Nanticoke Police Department to have a school resource officer work eight hours a day, between Jan. 2, 2014, and June 10,” then-Superintendent Tony Perrone said when asked about the grant Tuesday. Perrone unexpectedly resigned that evening, citing health reasons.
The grants are intended to help districts hire either a school resource officer or school police officer. The distinction is subtle and not always distinct. Generally, an SRO is an officer in a municipal police force with extra training in school policing and working with students who is contracted to work in district schools part of the year. A school police officer is usually employed directly by the district.
Perrone said the officer would serve Nanticoke police during summer then, if the legislature funds a proposed second-year grant at half this year’s amount, return to work in the district next school year. If the state doesn’t provide additional funding, the officer would work half a year in the district at the district’s expense.
But superintendents at other districts had planned to hire new officers later in the year, and were trying to figure out how to spend the money this year.
Pittston Area Superintendent Michael Garzella said he had expected to spend most of a $39,471 grant next school year for a school police officer employed by the district so he could work in all district schools. An SRO employed by a police department usually works in a school within that department’s jurisdiction.
Garzella initially said “I don’t think we could spend $40,000 by the end of this year.” But after checking with the state, he believed there is enough flexibility to meet the spending deadline
District Principal Kevin Booth, who spearheaded the grant effort, said a state official told him that, while the money technically must be spent in the next few months, “it took so long to distribute the money they don’t expect you to possibly hire someone and tell them you might only have the job for 4 months.”
The two largest local districts, Hazleton Area and Wilkes-Barre Area, each won $40,000 grants, and superintendents from both said it should not be a problem to spend the money this school year if necessary.
Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Bernard Prevuznak said the district had just hired another SRO and expected the district can use the grant to fund his position.
Hazleton Area Superintendent Francis Antonelli said the district expanded its SRO force this year as well, to 12 officers, and planned to use the grant money to hire another for the new Maple Manor school, which will be in the former Bishop Hafey high school and is set to open in September. But spending the money this year shouldn’t be an issue with such a large internal force, Antonelli said.
Antonelli noted the district SROs are not part of municipal police departments, primarily because the district crosses multiple municipal and county borders. The central campus is located in Hazle Township, which has no police force.
Dallas School District got the largest local grant, $58,000, and currently has no school police or school resource officers. Superintendent Frank Galicki said the plan was always to pay to have a Dallas Township officer trained as an SRO and work in the district 180 days during the school year, beginning this fall.
“That is how we filed the grant,” Galicki said, adding that he believes that is how it is expected to be spent.