Board of Freeholders dedicates half the capital budget to beef up safety at 21 public high schools

Burlington County is launching an innovative grant program to fund school security that’s unlike any other in the state.

A resolution passed Wednesday night by the Burlington Board of Freeholders will dedicate $20 million — half the county’s capital budget — to funding school security enhancements at 21 public high schools across the county. The move is unparalleled in New Jersey and innovative even in national terms.

Burlington County Freeholder director Kate Gibbs, a Republican, said the catalyst for this project was the increase in school shootings across the country.

“Over the past few months and years we’ve seen tragedy after tragedy and as a county elected official there are a lot of problems in the world and you want to solve everything,” Gibbs said. “I asked myself ‘ok what can we do in a real way?’ I don’t like doing things for the sake of rhetoric,” she said.

What’s more, the county anticipates the grant won’t put any additional strain on the taxpayers. In fact, Gibbs said Burlington is set to cut the total county property-tax levy; over the past decade the Freeholder Board has cut the levy by nearly $10 million.

“This is a groundbreaking approach; we’re finding a way to protect our students and teachers and our taxpayers at the same time,” Gibbs said.

How the program will work

The program is voluntary, and involves a unique evaluation method and superintendent judgment rather than county-government mandate. Interested high schools — and possibly middle and elementary schools in the future — must undergo an evaluation with a contracted architectural firm to determine what physical safety improvements are most needed. The report will be submitted to district superintendents and a school can choose to apply for funding for specific items or projects recommended in the report.

The approved enhancements will be strictly physical, “target hardening” capital projects — things like installing more panic alarms and buzzers, constructing a security vestibule, and instituting a swipe card-reader. Gibbs said the money will not be available for personnel costs like armed guards, security officers, or counselors.

The program is designed to work like Burlington’s community block-grant program which uses federal grant funds to pay for housing and neighborhood development projects.

Though she anticipates moving quickly — Gibbs wants most of the applications in by October —this project is a long time coming.

As school shootings continued to dominate the news cycle, Gibbs said she met with school-security experts, administrators, the county finance team, and law enforcement to design a system that would prioritize physical upgrades.

“Before I moved forward, I went to a superintendents’ roundtable … I needed the buy-in from the education community first, Gibbs said,” noting of the superintendents’ response that “enthusiastic doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

Different schools, different needs

One of the biggest challenges in shaping the program, Gibbs said, was determining what was right for each school and how much each improvement would cost. She said she worked with security experts and the county finance team to assess security enhancement projects that had already been implemented in schools before a consensus was reached that $20 million should cover the upgrades for the 21 high schools. Some would undoubtedly request more funds than others, but Gibbs said around $1 million per school seemed reasonable to and her team though she emphasized that the grants would not be capped.

Gibbs said there were drawbacks to working with security companies — they would often come to a school and try to sell their products rather than accurately assess what a school should prioritize.

“They’ll say ‘we’re selling cameras, you need 20 cameras,’” Gibbs said. “We wanted credibility and a fair way to determine what schools need, not just a sales person making a pitch.”

That’s where the architectural firm comes in. The county will contract with USA Architects, a firm based in Somerville that is experienced in school security, under a shared-services agreement. Interested schools will be required to undergo an evaluation by the firm before receiving any grant money.

The firm will be kept on retainer by the county and paid out of the $20 million. Gibbs said the county determined that even if all 21 high schools decided to pursue the evaluation, the total costs for the firm would be less than $100,00 or less than 0.5 percent of the total grant amount.

Cutting property taxes

The reason for using only one firm? Standardization. Gibbs said the age and varying structural integrity of each school would lead to different cost projections. With one firm handling all evaluations, the hope is their recommendations for each school will be informed by their experience across the county.

Burlington is an interesting proving ground for the project because of the way it is set up and the money it’s been able to save over the years: New Jersey’s unique governing system of chosen freeholders gave Burlington the freedom to maneuver its $40 million capital budget to make half of it available for school security.

Gibbs said Burlington has been cutting the county property-tax levy since 2008, whereas all other counties in the state have had an average cumulative increase during the same period. Indeed, a Burlington County Times analysis shows the total levy is projected to decrease from $184.4 million in 2017 to $183.7 million this year.

The county also saved close to $100 million over the last five years by providing 9-1-1 emergency dispatch services and recycling collection to every municipality at no cost. Burlington is currently the only county to do so.

‘Get these kids safe yesterday’

The way Gibbs sees it, 65 percent of the tax bill goes to local school taxes and if the county can take care of security funds, the rest of that money can go directly to other school needs.

“If we spend $1 million on a vestibule, [schools] don’t have to go to the property taxpayers for it. By making this investment we’re helping these districts,” Gibbs said.

The money will also come from deferring smaller, nonessential projects such as furniture and carpet replacement in government buildings.

One reason more counties haven’t taken the same route as Burlington is an impending $500 million bond issue at stake in Trenton that would make state money available for school security funding. Gibbs said if the voters approve that bond, that money could be helpful but it’s entirely too volatile. “I don’t want to stand around and wait for Trenton to get its act together,” she said.

Now that the resolution has been approved, Gibbs said she hopes to get most if not all applications in over the next four months and begin on evaluations and grant allocations as soon as possible.

“I don’t want to get hung up in government bureaucracy. I want to get these kids safe yesterday.”