Gov. Rick Scott wants to spend more money on enhancing security at Jewish schools next year following a spate of bomb threats and anti-Semitic hate crimes.
But his plan has attracted criticism from civil rights groups and representatives of other religions who argue it’s too narrow and exclusionary.
State lawmakers set aside $654,000 during the last legislative session to pay for security guards, cameras, bullet proof glass, fences and alarm systems at Jewish day schools. In Boca Raton on Monday, Scott proposed increasing that investment to $1 million next year, arguing the thousands of children in the private schools needs extra protection.
“Many Floridians have been horrified by the threats against our Jewish schools and communities last year,” Scott said during a press conference at the Katz Hillel Day School. “We have absolutely zero tolerance for these hateful and anti-Semitic acts.”
One of the bomb threats targeted the David Posnack Jewish Day School in Davie. Gary Marks, a board member there, said the school recently applied for the money that was included in this year’s budget, and he hopes more will be available in the future. He said the state’s decision to provide the extra resources comes as “a huge and welcome relief.”
But critics have assailed Scott for singling out Jewish schools. The ACLU questioned the constitutionality of offering state money to one type of religious school but not others.
And Wilfredo Ruiz, communications director for the Florida chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, says Muslim schools and community centers have also faced threats and vandalism. They should get help, too, he argued.
”Why couldn't he make exactly the same piece of legislation including any school of any religion or no religion that has been [a] victim of a hate crime or hate incidents?” he said.
Scott defended the proposal during Monday’s event, arguing Jewish schools need the money because they were the specific targets of the recent threats.
But Ruiz argued the governor is making a political calculation. Scott is term-limited but widely expected to challenge Democrat Bill Nelson for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018.
“He’s playing politics with the main duty that he has as a governor, and that is to provide safety and security to his constituents,” Ruiz said. “What other explanation could there be to exclusively cater to the Jewish schools?”
If Scott is trying to court Jewish voters, his enthusiastic support of President Donald Trump could hurt him. Jewish organizations have connected the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents to the presidential election. And Florida’s powerful Jewish voting bloc overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton in November, according to polls.
At the event, Scott said Trump shares his concerns about protecting Jewish children.
”When I've talked to President Trump, … he's talked a lot about public safety,” he said.
The governor has begun rolling out details of his upcoming budget proposal for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which starts July 1. The Legislature will consider his recommendation but holds the most power over budgeting. Next year’s legislative session kicks off in January.
WLRN’s Peter Haden contributed reporting from Palm Beach County.