Mesa Public Schools has a “problem” many residents probably wish they had: How to spend a busload of money.
Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson’s presentation to the school board March 30 outlined how the district could receive more than $240 million in combined Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money.
The board voted to put a small portion of that to waive and/or reduce some summer school fees.
Thompson said the ESSER funds, which total $247 million, need to be spent by Sept. 30, 2024.
“The exciting part of these funds is they are extremely flexible. A lot of the guidelines are extremely broad,” Thompson said.
“There’s very little I’ve been told can’t be considered for these funds,” he added.
“That’s the good news. It’s also the bad news …
“It’s exciting but also terrifying to know we have so much to spend,” Thompson said.
Thompson noted the funds originated by Congressional acts, including last year’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the recent American Rescue Plan (ARP).
“It all becomes ESSER. … federal acts led to the funds we receive,” Thompson said.
“The next three to four years, you’ll be hearing a lot about ESSER.”
Using slides that he said were obtained from the Arizona Department of Education, Thompson said that, from the CARES Act, “the state received $277 million in ESSER. That translated to $17 million for Mesa Public Schools,” Thompson said.
A subsequent slide showed MPS has spent $12 million of that.
“Around December, there was another act that brought about $1.14 billion to the state. That translates to $70 million in ESSER funds for the school district,” Thompson said.
MPS has not yet applied for ESSER 2.
From the newly-signed ARP, “We are currently anticipating and waiting to see what the final distribution (will be), but the current estimates we’re receiving are ESSER 3 will be 2.2 or 2.3 times ESSER 2. When you translate that forward, we’re looking at an estimation of about $160 million,” Thompson said.
A slide Thompson showed, titled “Summary of ESSER Fund Eligible Activities,” included “any activity authorized by federal education programs,” including training and development of staff, providing mental health services and supports, “addressing learning loss,” school repairs “to reduce risk of virus” and “other activities necessary to maintain LEA (local education agency) operations and services and employ existing LEA staff.”
Early in the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis reiterated that despite declining enrollment, no reductions in workforce are planned.
“Our enrollment has been down about 6 percent but we have not laid off any teachers,” she said.
Commenting on Thompson’s ESSER presentation, Fourlis asked the board: “How do we strategically spend these funds? This is a historic opportunity to rethink how we invest in our children.”
“We need to think big,” Fourlis said. “We need to think about what will happen long after this thing called COVID is gone. This is an opportunity to invest in big ideas.”
The summer school fee waivers include fees for Community Education summer school, district camps (excluding sports camps) and Mesa Distance Learning Program. Summer fees for Xplore, an extended-day program for K-6 students, are reduced by 50 percent.
Fourlis outlined “Areas of Focus” for spending ESSER funds:
• Physical and mental health.
• Education workforce.
• Academic recovery.
• Capital needs.
During the public comments section of the meeting, one Mesa teacher had sharp criticism about the district’s priorities and direction.
Sharon Benson, Gifted and Talented teacher for Crismon, Guerrero, Pomeroy, Redbird, Roosevelt, Sirrine and Washington elementary schools, expressed extreme concern over the district following “critical race theory.”
“Critical race theory covertly teaches our students of color that they are victims,” she said.
“CRT … also promotes the soft bigotry of low expectations … Will we follow in the footsteps of Oregon and begin teaching an anti-racist math. Are we going to as some schools do require our white students to apologize to our Black population?”