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KOLD INVESTIGATES: Tracking how local school districts spending your tax dollars

Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 1:51 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Southern Arizona school districts have been granted hundreds of millions of dollars in CARES Act funding, and how the money is spent can go a long way in helping our students recover from the pandemic.

KOLD Chief Investigative Reporter Valerie Cavazos is tracking how the districts are using the funding.

Financial Windfall

It’s a windfall like no other for two southern Arizona’s districts in particular: Tucson Unified and Sunnyside. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being doled out to the two districts over three years to recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

They are getting the lion’s share of the funds in our region because they serve the most disadvantaged students.

The onus is now on superintendents to spend the funds wisely. And federal guidelines are in place on what’s allowable.

It’s all a big deal because our future workforce depends on how well students bounce back from this learning loss.

This investigative series begins with how important it is for districts to follow the rules.

No More Excuses

The man in charge of Sunnyside’s budget is CFO Hector Encinas.

“I’ve been here since 1981, the nickname I’ve been given is Hector the Rejector,” he said

He said he came by that moniker because of the district’s limited resources. But now, that’s changed.

The infusion of three rounds of federal COVID relief dollars, known as ESSER funds, has given districts an unprecedented opportunity to make drastic improvements.

“ESSER funds have basically taken away the Rejector issue because now the funds are available,” he said. “The excuse of not having money isn’t there anymore. So let’s put our money where our mouth is.”

So how much money are we talking about? In the first of three rounds of ESSER funds, $5.7 million has been allocated to Sunnyside.

And the district jumped at the chance to give more money to staff, millions in fact.

They came in the form of a one-time stipend.

“A recruitment retention stipend,” Encinas said. “Over 3 million of ESSER II funds are spent to retain and recruit staff.”

When we asked if that is allowed, he said yes.

Keeping Dedicated Staff

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis got the fed’s attention after announcing he would give $1,000 bonuses to teachers and principals as a “token of appreciation” for staff who worked during the pandemic.

A CBS station in Miami reported that the US Department of Education questioned the “bonus” saying “premium pay” is allowable as long as it’s used to address learning loss.

Jon Lansa oversees the federal funds in Tucson Unified. Like Sunnyside, TUSD is doling out $14.5 million in stipends for staff.

First, the money went to employees who worked in TUSD schools that opened for the at-risk students who were struggling with remote learning.

“There’s a retention stipend for staff that went all the way through last year and are still employed at the beginning of this year. So that’s another stipend that was built in,” Lansa said.

Sunnyside and TUSD gave stipends. Florida wants to give bonuses.

What’s the difference?

A stipend is a fixed sum of money paid periodically for services or to defray expenses. A bonus is an extra amount of money given to someone as a reward for work or as encouragement.

We asked Lansa about the bonuses DeSantis wanted to dole out.

“So the word that sticks out what you read me is bonus,” Lansa said. “It’s just like kind of extra on top when you say bonus. I mean some of our stuff that we’ve worked with stipends has been around retention and recruitment, trying to keep our staff with TUSD, really trying to honor the work that’s above and beyond.”

Notice both Encinas and Lansa used the ESSER funds for “retention and recruitment.” That appears to be allowable spending “to stabilize and support the educator workforce,” according to the US and Arizona Department of Education.

The governor had stated last year the ESSER pots “absolutely can be used for bonuses.”

The Miami Herald recently reported the state is no longer calling the checks “bonuses.” It’s now calling them “qualified disaster relief payments” given to first responders.

Bonuses or Stipends, semantics might be in play here.

Heads Will Roll

Spending the funds on the right things is important in more ways than one.

“We’re trying to be very careful, get all they put we can with this,” Lansa said. “Be very purposeful, I think is the main thing and how we’re using the money.”

Encinas agrees.

He and Lansa expect districts to be audited to ensure everyone follows the rules.

When asked what would happen if the districts misspend the money, Encinas did mince words.

“Well, heads will roll. No doubt about it,” he said.

You can read any of KOLD’s Investigations HERE.

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