Some TUSD arts, tech, PE teachers in jeopardy as pandemic relief winds down
District plans for next school year leaves gap in funding for dozens of Tucson teaching positions
Dozens of PE, arts and music and other teachers across 16 Tucson Unified School District elementary and middle school campuses may be out of jobs at the end of the year, as officials shift spending plans for remaining federal pandemic relief funds.
The TUSD Governing Board has approved a plan to halt using those funds to pay more than 88 employees in existing enrichment programs such as PE, technology, fine arts, music and gardening in the next school year. Retention bonuses will be paid to remaining employees, in part with the redistributed funding. But school officials said that staffers whose current jobs are in jeopardy should be able to move to new positions in the district.
TUSD's plan for remaining federal funds will retain staff in positions the Arizona Department of Education prioritized as crucial to counter pandemic-related academic losses, including over 100 teaching assistants. In addition, the board agreed to prioritize funding to continue positions of 49 teacher coaches and facilitators of multiple academic and behavioral supports for the students in need.
TUSD administrators shared with the board in December that the cost of those positions until the grant ends in 2024 will be $11 million.
A $63 million board-approved recruitment and retention strategy generated pressure to free up grant money in order to pay a stipend of $7,500 for each remaining employee over the next year. The district elected to make up the difference by other cutting other school staff positions before the 2024 grant end date.
Most of the employees affected were hired in response to job postings that indicated funding was expected to continue through 2024.
Between now and the end of the school year, TUSD representatives said they will move to keep as many of these employees on staff as possible.
"We have a lot of vacant positions in this labor shortage," Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said. "If they end up without a position, it's because they've chosen that."
Trujillo said that means schools will cover salaries for affected positions through another funding source, if they have the money. If not, the district will facilitate offers for open posts for the same job, or another job at the same pay grade at another school, he said.
Funding sources for the positions of 12 teachers and several instructional specialists who are currently teaching enrichment classes, primarily at elementary schools, are yet to be determined according to district records.
Plan received community endorsement
At a Governing Board meeting earlier this month, Jason Freed, chair of the district's Budget Advisory Committee, backed the prioritized staffing plan the board had approved in December. Through Freed, the committee also recommended the district prioritize ongoing funding after grant for employees whose training provide flexibility to perform multiple duties, such as "counseling struggling students, communicating home."
In December, after multiple public records requests, the Tucson Sentinel obtained records indicating the district also plans to continue federal relief funding for about 80 employees assigned to district departments in program coordinator, project management, human resources and other administrative roles related to managing grant activities. The cost of these operations roles for next year is approximately $3 million.
TUSD's director of grants and federal programs, Jon Lansa, said these positions are mostly required "manpower" for capital projects in progress to steward the quarter-billion dollars TUSD was awarded from the grant.
Those documents also revealed what none of the district administration's presentations to the board or the budget advisory committee acknowledged: enrichment teaching positions are among those that will be discontinued from the grant at the end of this school year.
In an interview, Freed said his committee had not reviewed a detailed list of positions before endorsing the district plans because the timeline the district and board had established for finalizing a recommendation did not allow for it.
PE and other electives vulnerable to cuts
At a Jan. 19 advisory committee meeting, administrators shared a detailed list of positions slated to be cut that are not yet matched to another funding source. Among those are 12 teachers and 20 instructional specialists and school technology liaisons. Those salaries cost the district $646,959.
For those whose current jobs end, there's no guarantee of the same job or same pay. Trujillo said if the district can't place an employee affected by the change in the districts plans to allocate federal relief funding for positions based in schools, employees will be offered an open job at a lower pay grade or can compete for any open post.
The problem with those qualified for PE and other enrichment teaching positions at the elementary school level is that those are not funded by the state. Nor are many of those positions eligible for ongoing federal funding sources such as Title 1, restricted to support students who receive free and reduced lunch, or desegregation funds related to school equity.
This leaves principals to rely on other external sources of funding.
"There's a lack of funding we have available to be able to pay for elective teachers beyond reading, writing and math. Some schools have done it through tax credits, gifts and donations. That's a question of the state Legislature funding schools adequately," said Trujillo.
In total, the cost of the 55 positions that, as of Jan. 19, were not yet been matched to a potential continuing funding source is $1.9M.
'A vicious cycle'
In an interview, Freed said his committee recommended in general that "the priorities for the remaining funds really have to be directly related to not just education but specifically, the adult towards the kid" as opposed to roles that do not impact students directly.
"That's not to suggest that there is not vital work that is going on at district headquarters, but that the most important things happen at the schools," Freed said.
When PE and arts teaching positions are funded, teachers can use the time their students are with those teachers to participate in professional development, communicate with parents, or plan instruction.
When the positions aren't funded, Freed said classroom elementary teachers must take on the responsibility to teach that content on top of everything else they do, contributing to "overwork and overburden."
Margaret Chaney, president of the Tucson Education Association, which represents teachers as well as white collar and food service workers in the district, said the union provided input on the plan through Freed, its past president.
Acknowledging that the district's plan to continue funding the teaching assistants and other key certified positions was a "huge relief," Chaney is concerned that any reduction in professionals working at the schools will "leave a giant hole" that will impact teacher retention.
When it comes to retaining teachers, "It's not just salaries… We need more people in the schools. We need better school working conditions, so that our students have better learning conditions," she said. Otherwise, "It's a vicious cycle."
Freed said though nothing he saw from the district indicated their plans for next year would not appropriately prioritize positions in the schools, "we should always scrutinize all positions."
He said, "If we all are in agreement that what's most important to us is our is our neighborhood school, how are these (funded) positions helping school teachers, support staff that are that are educating our kids? If there isn't an explanation for that, the board is going to have to dive a little deeper," he said.
"We can't get it wrong because our kids are in too much need for us to make any of those kinds of mistakes," he said.
Since the board's Dec. 6 vote in favor of the plan to halt funding of school positions, the district has already found other sources of funding or identified open positions that 15 affected employees can move into. Most budget decisions are made in February, said Lansa.
Trujillo said the district will notify the board of any teachers whose positions will be discontinued by April 15, as required by law.
In an email to Lansa obtained by the Sentinel, Trujillo acknowledged the possibility of a reduction in workforce, writing, "At the end of the RIF process we can report back to the board regarding the number of employees placed into open positions throughout the district."
Trujillo emphasized that grant funding is by nature temporary. He said, "If the board decided not to do the $63 million in stipends now, we simply would have way more of these positions to deal with in 2024. We're going to be in the same position a year from now."
"We're gonna have to find a way and we're gonna have to make the decision. 'Do we have another funding source to pick up the price tag of basically $19 million in positions staring at us a year from now?'," he said.
Records provided show the district currently funds more than 700 positions on this grant.
Trujillo, Chaney and Freed all emphasized the importance of electing policy makers who will appropriately fund public schools.
"All of these positions are extremely crucial. And in a perfect world, every school district budget should have enough money to fund these vital positions without relying on a grant," Trujillo said.