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Friday, March 22, 2019

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks at YBH. (Courtesy of Mason Resnick/Teach NJ)

A standing-room-only crowd of educators, students and a diverse array of religious leaders cheered as Governor Phil Murphy arrived at Yeshivas Beis Hillel in Passaic on Tuesday, January 8. He was there to sign a bill into law to double security funding for nonpublic school students, an event that was months and years in the making.

In the late spring of last year, after months of advocacy, Teach NJ (a project of the Orthodox Union) held a press conference with Muslim, Catholic and Jewish coalition partners at the Noor Ul Iman Islamic School in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey, to urge the New Jersey State Legislature to address a glaring inequity. The diverse group of leaders noted that, at the time, New Jersey State funding for security aid to public schools was twice that of the funding for security to nonpublic schools.

Pointing out the current climate of increased bias crimes and anti-Semitism in New Jersey and across the U.S., the Teach NJ coalition asked the New Jersey State Legislature to take action on a bill, drafted by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36), to increase security aid to nonpublic schools. Their argument was that all students deserve equal support to be safe in school, and a state that values diversity as much as New Jersey does necessitates parity in school security funding.

Despite the stark facts and the compelling reasoning, when the New Jersey State Legislature and the governor agreed on the fiscal year 2019 budget on July 1, there was no change in funding to security aid to nonpublic schools. But there was a dramatic increase (43 percent) in security aid to public schools. State security aid to nonpublic schools fell to 36 percent of the funding for state security aid to public schools. You couldn’t blame the Teach NJ coalition for feeling severely disappointed.

Rather than accept the increased disparity, the leaders of Teach NJ decided to mount a concerted advocacy effort over the summer and into the fall to seek an appropriation of additional New Jersey State funds for nonpublic school security. After months of lobbying, hundreds of emails and phone calls by Teach NJ supporters to their state representatives and to legislative leaders, letters to the editor, and more, the effort resulted in a remarkable victory.

In December, the New Jersey State Assembly and New Jersey State Senate both unanimously passed legislation (A.4597 and S.3080) doubling state security aid to nonpublic schools for fiscal year 2019. And on Tuesday, Governor Murphy, before a crowd of 300 students, religious leaders of different faiths, legislators and top government officials, proudly signed the bill and spoke about its importance.

“Across the United States, bias crimes are on the rise,” he said, referring to the ADL Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents for 2017, which reported 208 incidents in New Jersey, the third highest statewide total in the country. He said that this report was further substantiated by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s Report on Bias Incidents in New Jersey in 2017, which had 207 incidents of anti-Semitic crimes in New Jersey, including 138 at schools. “We can only assume, given current trends, that 2018 was worse.”

“The immediate need,” said the governor, “is that people in New Jersey should be able to go to school or to their synagogues, churches or mosques without fear.” The governor declared that this legislation takes a substantial step in that direction.

Also speaking at the bill signing event, Assemblyman Gary Schaer admitted that the legislative process can move very slowly. He told the crowd that he first started working on this bill 10 years ago and gradually built support for it. He credited Governor Murphy with understanding the need for increased security aid to nonpublic schools and asking for a supplemental appropriations bill. He thanked New Jersey State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin for advancing the bill in their respective houses and urging their members to support it.

Other New Jersey State Assembly and State Senate leaders who actively supported the legislation, and spoke at the bill signing, included Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-20), Senator Joseph P. Cryan (D-20) and Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36).

So what changed the equation at this time and moved the legislature to act?

Daniel Mitzner, director of State Political Affairs for the Teach Coalition, stated: “The difference this time was that we had a concentrated campaign involving our supporting schools, synagogues and motivated lay leaders. In addition, we worked with a coalition of interfaith partners, and in one voice we urged our representatives in New Jersey to ensure that this bill was passed.”

Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of the New Jersey office of Agudath Israel of America, which worked tirelessly with the Teach NJ coalition, noted another critical element in this development—the tragic synagogue attack in Pittsburgh, in late October. “The Pittsburgh attack was a big factor in this legislative success,” said Rabbi Schnall.

“People realized that just as it happened there, it could happen here. So we must do all we can to keep our children safe,” said Rabbi Schnall. Assemblywoman Quijano made a similar observation in her remarks to the audience at the bill signing.

Yeshiva day school leaders celebrated the bill’s passage and signing at the January 8 event in Passaic.

Rabbi Daniel Alter, head of school of the Moriah School in Englewood, said: “For us at Moriah, security has been a top priority. This bill means that now we won’t have to triage between security and academic excellence.”

Yehuda Kohn, executive director of the Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva (RPRY) in Edison, also shared a thought on the benefits: “This new funding is very important to us because budgets are tight. Having funds designated for the purpose of security is a huge help to us.”

Leslie Ostrin, a former president of RPRY and current VP of fundraising, added: “This funding is really critical, as the cost of increased security is out of sight. The greatest academics, innovation and programming can be rendered meaningless if the student body, faculty and staff are not safe. Most schools don’t have the bandwidth for these escalating costs. The increased funding is extremely helpful.”

Another Teach NJ Coalition partner to praise the passage of the increased security funding was Mrs. Eman Arafa, the former head of school and now a consultant at the Noor ul Iman School. She said: “This is a great day for us, as all the efforts we’ve made have come to fruition. The governor has recognized that our students are equally important and need security. It is sad that this is a big topic of our time. But since it is, we are so pleased that the New Jersey Legislature and the governor see this as an important matter and took decisive action.”

By Harry Glazer