Bright school stationery on old wooden table

Arizona schools will divide up $270 million in federal cash to help them get started when classes resume.

The plan by Gov. Doug Ducey includes $200 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to protect schools against budget shortfalls due to anticipated declining enrollment. 

In essence, it guarantees that schools will have at least 98 percent of the state aid they were getting this past school year.

That is crucial as state aid is based on the number of students in attendance.

 And a survey done last month by the political consulting firm of HighGround found 20 percent of adults with children in school said they would not send them back next year given fears of COVID-19.

And if 20 percent of a district’s students choose not to start when the doors open, that would normally translate to a 20 percent drop in aid. And with basic aid at $5,500 per student, that would have taken a real bite out of the money schools get.

The plan also contemplates that schools will be providing more instruction online than in traditional years. Part of that $200 million is earmarked for funding for remote learning.

Potentially more significant, the state will provide full funding even for students who are not sitting in a classroom all day, five days a week.

Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said this is particularly crucial for districts that want to have more flexible schedules to reduce the number of students in a classroom at any one time.

For example, he said Eloy schools are looking at a plan where half the students attend in the morning and then are sent home with assignments for the afternoon.

 The other half, having homework in the morning, go to class for the rest of the day.

Without this flexibility, Essigs said, districts would get funded only on a half-time basis for each student.

There is a catch, though: In order to be eligible, schools actually must be open to all students five days a week.

That does not preclude a district from deciding that they want their students going on alternate days to limit the number of youngsters in any classroom. 

But it does mean that if a parent has nowhere else to send a child, the school must agree to take him or her every day – not just the days the student otherwise would attend – even if it means that child remains in the library.

“This plan provides schools with the flexibility to ensure Arizona students continue to receive a quality education, whether through distance learning or in the classroom,’’ the governor said, adding it “provides parents with options that work best for their families.’’

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said that guaranteed funding and flexibility is the thing that is the most crucial for schools.

 The only question, he said, is whether there’s really enough money in the plan.

“I hope that that $200 million holds up,’’ he said.

On top of that $200 million, the plan allocates another $69 million that Ducey received from the CARES program. The largest share of that, $40 million, is earmarked for bridging the “digital divide.’’

The report says that the closure of schools earlier this year brought into focus the fact that many students lack access to the internet at home.

Much of that cash will go to expanding access to broadband in rural Arizona, with a new connection to Flagstaff by the end of next year and plans for more conduit and fiber along Interstate 19 from Tucson to Nogales.

What’s not in there, however, is any cash to purchase computers or high-speed modems for individual students.

 But aides to the governor said schools may have access to other funds, including $27 million that state schools chief Kathy Hoffman has in discretionary dollars.

Another $20 million is set aside to help kids catch up on what many of them missed after in-person instruction disappeared when the governor and Hoffman shuttered schools in the middle of March.

These funds, however, would be given out in grants, with eligibility based on various indicators of academic need and accessibility to resources. Traditional school districts and charter operations would apply for one-time funding.

And the governor also is putting $6 million into the Arizona Teachers Academy he got lawmakers to create several years ago in a bid to convince more college students to go into the classroom by paying for their college tuition.

What makes that necessary is that the COVID-19 outbreak has only exacerbated the number of older teachers leaving the profession, exacerbating what the governor’s office is calling the “Gray Wave’’ or “Silver Tsunami.’’ 

Those additional dollars, on top of $15 million already in the state budget, should provide enough to pay the tuition of another approximately 1,200 college students.

One thing not in the plan is what are expected to be higher transportation costs.

Essigs said that schools won’t be able to fill buses with students, as had been done before, and yet still maintain the required social distancing. That, he said, will result in more trips, meaning more gasoline and, eventually, more wear-and-tear on buses.

Aides to Ducey said that schools have direct access to other dollars, including funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that could be directed to cover some of those costs.

Overall, Essigs said, he sees the plan as a positive development.

“At least it’s better than what it was before,’’ he said

Other elements include:

  $1 million for “school innovation microgrants’’ for innovative programs;

  An identical amount for new vehicles for the Arizona School for the Deaf and the Blind;

  $700,000 to expand the Beat the Odds program to help train school leaders, particularly in rural and underperforming schools;

  $500,000 for the Teach for America program to provide tutoring to children defined as the most in need.

And school district will be exempt from normal procurement rules – meaning going out and soliciting bids – for cleaning supplies and any other personal protective equipment needed.

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