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What happens when school relief funding runs out?

Tracking Federal ESSER funds
Published: Aug. 26, 2021 at 12:21 PM MST|Updated: Aug. 26, 2021 at 12:26 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - It’s a staggering amount of money. Nearly $350 million dollars for Tucson Unified and Sunnyside districts are being doled out in three rounds of federal relief dollars known as ESSER funds.

Tucson Unified is allocated the most in the state, nearly $268 million.

Jon Lansa is in charge of those federal grant dollars.

“It really helped transform what we were able to do,” said Lansa.

But the funds come attached with rules so he explained he’s careful to follow state recommendations, which are 3 phases to recovery.

ESSER 1 primarily handled “relief,” the immediate needs of school closures and summer school.

TUSD spending plan
TUSD spending plan(KOLD)

“So that’s the one that we were actively spending right now, ESSER 2 is $76.3 million,” Lansa said.

ESSER 2 tackles “Preparation and Prevention” to help school stabilize disruption and address safe school openings.

KOLD asked for TUSD’s detailed spending records and have yet to receive them, but the district has outlined their plans to the public.

Capital Items purchased with ESSER Funds  in TUSD
Capital Items purchased with ESSER Funds in TUSD(KOLD)

The ESSER 2 round includes purchasing technology, desks, tables, outdoor furniture, playground equipment, gardens, and basketball court resurfacing.

Is this allowable spending?

It appears so, according to U.S. Department of Education guidelines.

Funds may be used for “Technology” and “School facility repairs and improvements to reduce virus risk and support student health needs”.

Sunnyside provided us a detailed budget of how it plans to spend all 80 million of the ESSER funds spanning 3 years.

Sunnyside District ESSER spending
Sunnyside District ESSER spending(KOLD)

After checking the items under each category, technology, academic, wellness and operational, it seems the entire list is allowable.

The district purchases busses and air conditioners for COVID safety as well school marquess for better communication with families.

And the rest?

“So 65 million out of the 80 would be directly for students -- the student support.” CFO Hector Encinas answered.

For example, more than a million dollars are allocated for specialists to address learning loss.

“Our goal is to have art teachers, every elementary will have a music teacher like we used to,” said Encinas, “It was one of the things we used that we cut when our override was gone. 18:50 It gives a primary teacher time off during the day to do planning, something that they had been adamant about, said, we need more time within the day to do our planning time.”

TUSD budgets $350,000 for each school
TUSD budgets $350,000 for each school(KOLD)

TUSD is also doling out $350,000 to each school, more than $3 million total, to hire much needed positions even before the pandemic -- counselors, social workers, and interventionists.

“Your reading and math intervention or an RTI. Those were positions that we had in the district already, but we didn’t have them throughout all our schools or we didn’t have them at the depth or the amount that we needed,” Lansa said. “And we knew it would be effective at school.”

So both districts are hiring more salaried staff to tackle academic and socio-emotional issues, but what happens after the 3 years?

“Yeah, that’s the big challenge there because after the grant funding ends, anything attached to it, it’s over,” said Lansa, " How do we keep all those positions in place? We are trying to figure that out now, because we don’t want to have a cliff in three years where all these great positions and supports that are available to students and teachers just go away.”

Luckily, Encinas says, schools have three years to address the issues.

“We’ll see what happens in terms of being able to maybe go for an override,” he said.

Tucson Unified says it’s still working through how it plans to spend the third round of ESSER funds.

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