Chandler USD avoids staff layoff with federal funding, budget cuts

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School districts across the state—and the nation—have had to grapple with taking on costs associated with COVID-19, such as increased sanitation, new technology for remote learning and more staff to create smaller classroom settings that allowed for social distancing.

Among those costs and decreased enrollment in public school districts, districts such as Chandler USD have had to rely on federal and state funding to offset COVID-19 costs.

CUSD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said the district was able to cut $11 million from its fiscal year 2020-21 staffing budget this spring without laying off teachers, instead using attrition and other cost-saving measures to prevent the loss of jobs for this fiscal year. But the district is not in the clear for fiscal year 2021-22 when CUSD may see a loss of 186 positions due to the enrollment dip without additional funding.

“For the last 30 years, we’ve been growing,” Berry said. “We did expect for the district to grow this fiscal year. We knew elementary was going to decline, but we expected secondary to increase. Our high schools were still growing—there aren’t that many competitive high schools in the area. We expected to grow, then the pandemic hit. We are just like everyone else in public education where we are seeing a decrease in students, and there are a number of students across the state who aren’t even going to school, and we don’t know where they are at.”

In the district’s second budget revision for FY 2020-21, approved in January, CUSD estimates a $25.9 million reduction in budget capacity, according to documents from the district. That would bring the budget to $305.45 million for the district of roughly 45,000 students—the third largest district in the state and second largest in the Valley.

Berry says with millions in federal aid, the district has been able to offset the technology and sanitation costs associated with COVID-19 and lessen the blow from the enrollment dip for the upcoming fiscal year.

“We are covered for last year and this upcoming year. Our problem lies in the year after that,” Berry said.

Calculating COVID-19 relief funding

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund was established by Congress when it passed the first coronavirus relief bill signed into law March 27, 2020, and allocated $13.2 billion into the fund.

The fund was distributed to state educational agencies and then distributed to local school districts to offset the COVID-19 effects. A second contribution to the same fund was made in the second coronavirus relief bill, signed into law Dec. 27, which allocated $54.3 billion to the ESSER fund.

CUSD received $3 million from the federal government in the first round and $13.57 million in the second, Berry said. Those funds were used to offset the $18 million the district spent in the current fiscal year for COVID-19 mitigation. There is expected to be a third round of ESSER federal funding that could give the district an additional

$28 million, Berry said, but that is still undetermined. Berry said the district will know more before the budget is finalized this summer, but she said she believes the third round of ESSER federal funding doubles what was received in the second round.

“We are very fortunate for those federal dollars,” Berry said. “We are continuing to operate with our mitigation plans, and we haven’t seen significant spread of COVID-19 in our schools. We think we have done a good job of mitigation. Our staff is vaccinated, and I feel like we are coming around and can operate at full capacity. We are really thankful the community has stuck behind us and supported us.”

Statewide, public schools doing remote learning at the direction of health officials are projected to lose up to $266 million because Arizona law funds distance learning at 5% less than in-person school, Berry said. Public schools are allocated funding per pupil based on their average daily membership—or average daily attendance.

“We automatically took these huge decreases and we were supposed to be held harmless, but because we started the year online we had a 5% reduction of average daily membership, and I don’t think anyone thought that was going to happen for as long as it did,” Berry said.

State Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, said she feels terrible for the financial situation putting teachers—like the 152 certified staff that were given pink slips from Gilbert Public Schools on March 30—at risk of losing their jobs.

“We are certainly in almost a perfect storm because there are so many layers to this,” Pawlik said. “We have kids that didn’t come back to their schools this fall, and enrollment numbers are down. But the other issue is that before we recessed last spring, we passed the enrollment stabilization grant that was intended to hold districts harmless if enrollment dipped below 2%, the most districts would lose would be 2%. In January the governor announced new numbers. That’s a really big deal. Gilbert Public Schools was expecting around $34 million in those enrollment stabilization grants but got $14 million.”

Pawlik said there are plenty of education funding and education-related bills moving through the state Legislature, and nothing is truly off the table until the state’s budget is adopted.

“I think it’s important that people keep reaching out to their elected officials to have their voices heard regardless of what side of the issue they are on; it’s important to hear their voices,” Pawlik said.

Saving jobs

Katie Nash, president of the Chandler Education Association, which represents teachers and staff across CUSD, said she is grateful the district avoided layoffs this year.

“We had to reduce our staffing budget by $11 million, and honestly I have no idea how we did it,” Nash said. “CEA was adamant that, at a time like this, we cannot be reducing our staff. Our students now, more than ever, need smaller class sizes, special education resources, counselors to identify where kids are having deficiencies. We are extremely fortunate that we found out we will not be reducing staff.”

However, Nash said there will be attrition and some cash-funded programs such as preschool or food and nutrition that might see changes in staffing due to the district’s overall loss of enrollment. She said while the federal and state funds have helped the district, there is a misconception as to how some of those funds can be used.

“A lot of that money is earmarked for summer school and remediation and doesn’t actually save jobs for the school year,” Nash said. “Some of it can be used for additional personal protective equipment and sanitization—but that doesn’t save jobs.”

She said she believes the CUSD administration has done “an amazing job” of budgeting and moving funds around in the last year.

“Not every district was able to do that. Not everyone had that contingency fund and the financial wherewithal, I think, to figure out a way that doesn’t involve teachers losing their jobs,” Nash said. “Some of them are really struggling. We are a huge district; they knew there would be huge pushback if there were going to be layoffs. We are always paying attention.”

Berry said the district’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget will be finalized later this summer. The CUSD governing board will vote to approve the budget at a meeting this summer before the budget is sent to the state.