Yoav Gonen, THE CITY
A program that uses public funds to pay for unarmed security guards at private schools – including some of the city’s most elite institutions – is on pace to cost taxpayers $22.3 million over the last three years, THE CITY has learned.
The effort has expanded in size and cost each year since it was created under City Council legislation and approved by Mayor Bill de Blasio in late 2015 — growing from $4 million for 127 schools in its first year to an expected $10.7 million and 163 schools this year, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services.
While the vast majority of participating non-public institutions are Catholic and Jewish schools, at least 10 elite private schools have collected funding to pay for guards — including Manhattan’s The Dalton School, Lycée Français of New York and The Buckley School.
Tuition at the 10 schools ranges from $37,150 to $51,950 — raising questions among some officials who oppose doling out taxpayer money to private schools.
“We’re essentially providing [for] some of these schools that can easily afford to pay for their own security,” said City Council Finance Committee Chair Daniel Dromm (D-Queens), a former public school teacher who voted against the 2015 bill.
“It just seems to me that it was a way around funding their own security system.”
Founder Defends Program
But former Brooklyn City Councilmember David Greenfield, the prime sponsor of the original legislation, said it isn’t fair to judge the program based on a few high-priced schools getting funds.
“The overwhelming majority of non-public schools can’t afford security guards, just like the vast majority of public schools are struggling and can’t afford to pay for their own security guards,” said Greenfield, now the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.
“Some things we have deemed so fundamental — like books, technology vaccinations and security guards — that as a government we decided to pay for that for all school children regardless of where they go to school.”
Introduced in February 2014, Greenfield’s proposal initially called for staffing the private schools with NYPD school security agents, who are also unarmed but have a direct communication line with police precincts.
It was that close link between the agents and NYPD that advocates for religious schools emphasized during a Council hearing in April 2015, when supporters perceived the threat to religious schools, around the country and world, was growing.
When the proposal proved too expensive, however, it was altered to mandate that non-NYPD security guards be used and that only nonprofits with at least 300 students would be eligible.
The changes also capped the annual cost at $19.8 million per year and helped win the mayor’s approval.
“Additional security guards will, of course, enhance school safety and community safety, and will put more eyes and ears on the ground … and will improve the ability of the NYPD and other public safety agencies to keep New York safe,” de Blasio said at the bill-signing ceremony on Dec. 23, 2015 at City Hall.
Constitutional Questions Raised
But Donna Lieberman, director of the New York City Liberties Union, characterizes the measure as a handout to the religious lobby — and a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
“This is about siphoning tax dollars to religious schools. And to the extent it’s not about siphoning tax dollars to religious schools, it’s about siphoning tax dollars to schools that serve the one percent,” she told THE CITY. “Either way, as public policy, it’s a terrible idea.”
The legislation requires schools to report all safety-related incidents to the NYPD and DCAS at the end of each school year.
Those records, obtained by THE CITY from DCAS under a Freedom of Information Law request, show 25 incidents reported across 13 non-public schools in 2016-17. An additional 101 schools that submitted records that year reported no incidents.
The filings included a fire that was started on a school bus parked outside the Associated Beth Rivkah School for Girls in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in May 2016 — before the program officially started — and an early 2017 incident in which a security guard reported being threatened with a gun.
In the 2017-2018 school year, 44 incidents were reported across 20 schools — with 118 institutions reporting zero incidents.
The filings that year ranged from yellow school buses that were sprayed with graffiti outside a Brooklyn Jewish school to a guard alerting police that an unauthorized man was in the schoolyard of a Bronx Catholic school during recess, leading to an arrest.
In January 2018, City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn) introduced a bill that would extend the 2015 law to private schools with fewer than 300 students.
But Deutsch’s measure, which would also raise the annual cap on spending to $39.3 million, has garnered just four co-signers and has not been given a public hearing date yet.
The security tab for the city’s more than 1,800 public schools hit $305 million spent the 2018 fiscal year.
Requests for comment from The Dalton School, Lycée Français of New York and The Buckley School were not answered.