Sunnyside, Tucson unified school districts see first round of COVID relief money

Published: Aug. 19, 2021 at 9:04 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s a financial windfall like no other for Sunnyside and Tucson unified school districts. They are flush with relief dollars, known as ESSER funds, doled out in three rounds to be spent within three years.

Hector Encinas, Sunnyside’s chief financial officer, is in charge of reporting every dime spent.

“We have an opportunity here for additional revenues to pay for programs and services that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to,” he said.

But because the funds come with stipulations, schools can’t buy just anything they want.

The district has been allocated about $80 million. $6 million has been spent so far.

“Priority was to make sure that our facilities were safe in terms of COVID,” Encinas said

Sunnyside immediately spent $2 million to improve air quality in schools to help keep the virus at bay.

“Technology that more or less cleans the airs in the HVAC, in the ductwork. So that’s been completed except for Desert View HS. Classroom C building is yet to be completed,” Encinas said.

COVID safety had been the priority in TUSD, says Jon Lansa, who oversees federal grants.

The feds allocated nearly $268 million to the district. All of the ESSER 1 funds, 18.5 million, have been spent so far.

“That’s the one we’ve primarily been using at the beginning of this pandemic and heading into this school year,” Lansa said.

TUSD started with deep cleaning the schools when the pandemic hit, but changed course when new information emerged on how COVID spread.

“Professionals and doctors start figuring out it was airborne, right? And so then we switched to more gloves and masks and then social distancing and how are we going to face and plexiglass shields. We had to purchase those for all our schools,” said Lansa.

Both districts worked to close the digital divide when students suddenly moved to remote-only learning.

“Just a mad rush last summer with ordering Chromebooks, laptops, hotspot for students, families that didn’t have access to the internet,” Lansa said.

Sunnyside used $2 million in ESSER 1 funds to enhance Summer School programs to help struggling students in all grade levels.

So did the two districts follow the rules on spending?

Sunnyside provided a breakdown of exact expenditures, a list of allowable spending by the U.S. Department of Education.

Some are easier to identify, such as staff “salaries,” “benefits.” “furniture” and “technology.”

But other item descriptions are broad, like ”supplies” and “indirect costs” -- both total more than a million dollars.

Also broad is some of the federal criteria, such as “funds may be spent on providing principals and other school leaders with resources to address individual school needs.”

So districts may have to justify their spending if audited.

KOLD News 13 made the same request last week with Tucson Unified and haven’t received the line item document yet so we can’t verify the spending.

For the most part, it appears Sunnyside and TUSD are following the federal rules.

“There is guidance and this is federal money. You have to be able to show evidence of following these steps. So we’re trying to be very careful, get all the input we can with this. Be very purposeful,” Lansa said.

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