Mesa Public Schools Governing Board members think the district administration needs to focus more of its millions in pandemic relief funds on learning loss.
During their final meeting of the calendar year last month, board members zeroed in on the district’s use of $158 million in the third round of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER, funding that was part of the American Rescue Plan approved early last year.
Like the two earlier rounds approved in 2020, the money is aimed at off-setting the pandemic’s impact on schools and covered everything from cleaning and improving air quality to learning opportunities. The third round also required districts to spend at least 5% on addressing learning loss, 1% for afterschool activities, and 1% for summer learning programs.
At the board’s meeting last month, Associate Superintendent Holly Williams presented an update on how the district has used ESSER funds.
Although the majority of funds allocated in its second and third rounds target learning loss and student engagement, money also has been used to cover expenses normally paid under the district’s regular operating budget.
While ESSER guidelines are flexible, board members expressed concern with the idea of supplanting normal operational costs.
“I see some ways here I would question how we’re using the money,” board member Dr. Joe O’Reilly said. “If it’s just offsetting that cost that was already in our budget, I think it should go to the direct service of students instead and we pay for our air filters like we always have.”
He pointed out that statewide, students scored significantly lower on standardized tests last year.
“The state doesn’t describe it as growth; they describe it as ‘severe decreasing growth’ or ‘large decreasing growth’ in math, and it’s ‘large decrease or moderate decrease’ in language arts across the state and across subgroups – especially for low-income students. We’re talking about West Mesa – some areas that we almost should target more than other areas.
“In [ESSER III], we budgeted $1.2 million for tutoring and $7 million for air filters,” O’Reilly continued. “That seems a bit off to me… I just urge us to spend more money directly serving kids and less money on other things that we could fund in other ways.”
O’Reilly said he would like to see more money put into programs after school, on weekends and during spring and summer breaks.
“I hope summer academies are [longer] this year because last summer, they were just three weeks and that wasn’t much, given the learning loss that students had.”
He also expressed concern that the Title 1 schools did not receive ESSER funds for summer school because the three weeks there were already covered by federal funds.
Title 1 schools serve a high percentage of low-income families.
“They should get something in addition to what they would normally get,” O’Reilly said.
Other board members agreed with O’Reilly, suggesting that the ESSER allocation was far from done.
“I really appreciate the thoroughness of the presentation,” said board member Marcie Hutchinson, referring to Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis’ oft-repeated motto of “More opportunities for more kids more of the time.”
“I would love to see a greater variety of opportunities on a variety of interests for a variety of intelligences – the various ways in which our kids’ interests can hook them into reading [and] math,” Hutchinson said.
Board member Lara Ellingson referred to the “listening sessions” held by the district in May 2021 in accordance with an ESSER III directive to districts that they “engage your community and ask what they would like.”
In those meetings, the first priority expressed by parents and community members was the desire for more learning opportunities.
“That’s what we’re hearing from them now about our mission and our vision. So I would echo what board member O’Reilly said,” Ellingson said, expressing a desire for more school psychologists to help with special education.
Williams assured the board that the administration is planning to hire literacy and math coaches – “as many as we can hire. We’re working on that number right now.”
The district is also planning to tap into a Chandler Unified School District program that provides online on-demand tutoring.
“We’re going to look at piloting the program to see how many parents and students would utilize that service,”
Williams said. “If there’s a high demand, then we will put more resources
Starting this month, Chandler Unified students who need a tutor can schedule one 24 hours a day after the Governing Board approved a contract with on-demand tutoring service NetTutor.
The service promises tutors 24 hours a day who will be able to help students in any subject, from kindergarten to the advance placement classes some high school seniors are taking.
MPS Board President Jenny Richardson said that when it comes to ESSER spending, “What we’ll be held accountable for is: does it raise students’ achievement and well-being?”
“When we go forward with bond or override requests, if I were a community taxpayer – which I am – I would say, ‘You had a bunch of money. Did it make a difference?’ Some of this is an opportunity to find out, does this work?
“We’ll gauge our future planning on whether these are really successful measures,” Richardson continued. “I understand the desire to experiment some, but at the end of the day, we don’t want to keep replicating programs if they aren’t successful at moving the needle and helping kids recover from the losses they experienced with COVID.”
Williams said the outcome of each component of the ESSER educational funding would be tracked to determine what efforts are having the greatest effect on student learning growth.
Richardson added, “We want good outcomes for our kids. Good academic, good mental and physical health outcomes for our kids and our staff. And that’s where we want to spend ESSER monies. We’re excited to see how this impacts education for years to come.”