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TUSD set to cut dozens of school staffers to pay for bonuses for remaining employees

TUSD set to cut dozens of school staffers to pay for bonuses for remaining employees

About 100 positions to be eliminated under plan for one-time stipends for retained teachers, staff at Tucson district

  • Michelle Callahan-Dumontwith the Ranger Rewards store she runs to reward positive behavior at Rincon High School. Students recognized can choose prizes provided by donations.
    Abra McAndrewMichelle Callahan-Dumontwith the Ranger Rewards store she runs to reward positive behavior at Rincon High School. Students recognized can choose prizes provided by donations.

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board will decide Tuesday who from among about 100 employees will be let go so remaining staff and teachers can receive one-time $7,500 stipends.

The jobs the district is poised to eliminate include 98 positions, including instructional technologists and other support posts, but likely do not include 49 other vulnerable roles for behaviorial case managers and teacher coaches which had earlier been considered for the layoffs. District administrators are recommending the cuts to the board.

These employees were hired from federal pandemic relief funds, but that money is running out, and the board has decided some of it should be used to retain the district's 7,500 other employees and help TUSD recruit new ones.

Brenda Kazen, who has worked at Rincon High School as a counselor for 19 years, said the grant has helped keep students on track to graduate in difficult post-pandemic conditions.

"I feel like for once, at least at my school, we have the supports for students that could make a difference, if given enough time," she said.

Now many of those positions will be gone, and Kazen said the temporary stipend won't solve the staffing shortage long-term.

"We don't need stipends," she said. "We need higher salaries."

The district received $267.7 million in federal funds in 2021 from a program called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, to help schools during the pandemic, and it must be spent by September 2024.

Because of the size of the district and the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch, TUSD received the largest allocation of federal school relief funds in the state, said Jon Lansa, the district's senior director for grants and federal programs. In a district that received $341 million in state support according to its most recent annual financial report, "the impact has been huge," Lansa said.

Using those federal funds, TUSD schools currently have filled 260 key positions to help counteract the effects of the pandemic on student learning. Chris McNeely, TUSD's interim executive director of human resources, said employees are on year-to-year contracts with no guarantees of continuation beyond this year. However, the jobs posted indicated that funding was expected to continue through the 2023-24 school year.

Last spring, the Governing Board decided to spend $63 million of the $267.7 million in federal pandemic funds toward one-time $7,500 stipends. Now the district's plans for next year's budget puts the positions at stake.

A budget advisory committee, composed of members from the public and school employees, has been reviewing the district's plans this fall to provide suggestions to the board on exactly who should keep their jobs. They voted on Nov. 17 to recommend the board focus on allocating federal funding for behavioral case managers who coordinate multiple support systems for students struggling the most to learn in a difficult post-pandemic recovery.

Ricky Hernandez, TUSD's chief financial officer, told the committee Nov. 17 that the board will consider approving the plan at its upcoming Tuesday meeting. If the board follows the committee recommendations, the district plans to let go the equivalent of 98 full-time employees at the end of this school year.

"In February, we'll start notifications of how much staffing is in place at schools and how much of that staff can stay," said Lansa.

Pandemic funds

Initially, the $267.7 million in federal pandemic funding paid for technology and infrastructure for online learning. When schools re-opened in 2021, sanitation supplies and capital projects to mitigate disease transmission drove most expenses, said Lansa.

The board also approved an $8 million stipend program to encourage employees to get their vaccinations against COVID-19.

Each school was also allocated $350,000 per year for five key positions to respond to the impact of pandemic on student learning and development.

In addition to math and reading interventionists, counselors and social workers, schools were encouraged to hire expert certified teachers to coach teachers on curricular strategies. About a quarter of schools used funds for the teacher coaches.

Also, the funds helped pay for 30 teachers who served as case managers to connect multiple supports for social, emotional and academic behavior needs for the students who struggle the most.

Schools that already had these positions in place could hire from a menu of supplemental roles, such as teaching assistants, success specialists, outdoor learning specialists, school community liaisons, hall monitors and others.

These positions were advertised and intended to stay on through the 2023-24 school year.

"Everything changed in April of this year," said Lansa. "The $63 million in retention stipend was approved and it wiped out being able to do (federal pandemic) allocations to schools in the last year."

Stipends address teacher shortage

The $63 million is intended to help keep current teachers and better compete with other county school districts, officials said.

The district's teacher shortage was exacerbated by the pandemic, according to data provided by Christopher McNeely, the interim HR director. Compared to August 2019, teacher vacancies in August 2021 more than doubled, from 4% of available positions to just over 10%.

A shortage of substitute teachers compounded the issue. Daily substitute fill rates during that academic year dipped to 70%, McNeely said. Teachers and administrators in the schools must handle the education of students in classes that are not covered by a substitute.

In March, the Governing Board approved recruitment and retention stipends intended to make the district more competitive in a tight market. Three members voted yes. Sadie Shaw abstained and Leila Counts was not present for the vote.

Three $2,500 payments to all TUSD employees are scheduled for December 2022 and June and December 2023. Substitute teachers who work at least 45 days per semester are also eligible for the bonuses.

When it comes to recruitment, the stipend appears to be working.

This October, the district reported 143 teacher vacancies, down from a peak of 257 in August 2021. The district reported an increased fill rate for substitute teaching requests of 91% for the last week of September.

In January, Maggie Dominguez, Ph.D., left a 16-year career as a faculty member at the University of Phoenix to work as a substitute in the elementary school classroom, returning to where she started her teaching career in the early 2000s. This year, she's a first-grade teacher at Kellond Elementary.

"The retention bonus, it was the deciding factor for me in picking TUSD over a different district," she said. "I think it's a great incentive to get established teachers into the district."

Dominguez described the timing of the stipend strategy as "brilliant."

"The way they're paying it out over the semester, if you do have a challenging class or if you do get to the point where you're burned out or anything like that, that type of incentive will keep you going until the end of the year," she said.

Money not the only answer

When it comes to teacher retention, peer support may be worth more than temporary stipends.

Dominguez described what happens when a school cannot find a substitute to fill in for a vacancy or a teacher's day off: "So, you don't have a substitute, and you have no support staff. Teachers who are there are going to have to deal with the kids that don't have the teacher for the day. That's a lot to handle."

She said when that happens, teachers may have up to 35 kids in their classes.

"It would be a negative impact on the entire grade level, instead of just one classroom," Dominguez said.

Last year, her school didn't have the support people funded by the grant in place. This year, with teacher coaches and behavioral support system facilitators, "I've seen more growth in the students in this first quarter than I did in three months last year," she said.

"I really attribute what's happening to the fact that you know, there is that funding to get the people in place to help support teachers," said Dominguez. "It's just amazing the differences a principal can make in a school when they have the right staffing and the right funding for support."

Asked about how the district should prioritize grant funds, she said paying staff more is important but "I would rather work in a school where I don't get that stipend and I have those two people, than a school that doesn't have those people."

More staff makes a difference

Having more adults around changes students' behavior and ensures students with special situations get the help they need to learn.

Rincon High School Principal Alissa Welch said that her goal in using federal funds at her school was to reduce burdens of behavior and disorderly conduct on the classroom.

Michelle Callahan-Dumont taught for 15 years, the last four at Rincon. Since the pandemic, high school students struggle with increased cell phone addiction and lack of motivation, she said. She noticed other troubling behavior differences too.

"It's kind of like a disconnect, since online school," she said. "There's not a lot of empathy and it seems like there's just more of a lack of respect."

She said these behaviors where a factor in her decision to leave the classroom last fall. She now works as a behavioral case manager at Rincon. She says her role "overlaps behavior and academics," supporting the students most in need of help to remove obstacles to their success.

"Sometimes it's making an actual academic goal," she said. But for many of the cases she's managing, academic struggles are the symptom of bigger crises. "Almost all the students that come this way in this office, a lot of it starts at their house."

She communicates with parents, identifies alternative placements for students, or makes a connection for family therapy. She keeps teachers informed of outcomes of their referrals, so that they know individuals with exceptional needs are supported.

Her colleague Adam Velasco also works as a case manager at Rincon High School. He also recently left the classroom, citing burnout and anxiety.

Now he works to lessen the impact of student behavior on other teachers and the learning environment. He supports teachers and students to problem solve behavior issues. He also runs a Boys to Men circle, a weekly mentoring group for males working on maturity and healthy emotional outlets.

"It's one of those positions that's kind of like an IT position: when you're doing things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all," he said.

The work of the support staff at Rincon has not gone unnoticed, however.

"We do track that to see if we're having a reduction. Last month was the first time in a while that we've seen a big dip in referrals and off-task behaviors. So that was exciting for us, and we all feel a little bit of a shift," she said.

She hopes to find another source of funding to continue the case manager position, should the district decide federal relief funds are not available.

Stipends not everything

Whether the stipends will have their intended effect in retaining experienced teachers remains to be seen. Neither Callahan-Dumont nor Velasco said that they considered the stipends as a factor when they decided to look for jobs beyond classroom teaching.

"I thought it was specifically for classroom teachers, not support staff" said Velasco, "so I tried to pay it no mind."

Callahan-Dumont said it took her 12 years of teaching in Arizona with a master's degree to earn the $50,000 she earned in salary early in her career as a teacher in Boston.

As far as stipends, she said she finds the district's system of pay inconsistent. "Randomly, you know, we might get money for this or money for that. I just don't rely on it."

She said the teaching shortage mean that teachers give up their planning period to cover more classes and earn extra money. The federal relief funds also currently pay for these arrangements.

"What happens is because the teacher has no planning period, they have no break during the day." The added stress "sometimes leads to more negative interactions with the students. It's like this snowball effect," she said. "I think ultimately for the kids, it's not good."

"I wish they would just hire more people," she said.

Next steps

According to Hernandez, TUSD's finance chief, the district plans to request approval to direct remaining pandemic relief funds at the board meeting set for Tuesday.

If the district presents a plan that follows the recommendations of the budget advisory committee, 30 teacher case managers and 19 teacher coaches currently funded by the grant will have their contracts renewed.

According to plans presented to that committee, this means an additional 98 or more specialists in roles that support instructional technology, student success and community relations among others, will not continue on federal funds next year.

Hernandez said that the equivalent of 510 additional full-time jobs, 226 of them teacher positions, will need to be addressed as well by the end of the grant in September 2024.

In September, Board President Adelita Grijalva requested recommendations as soon as possible.

"People start to look for other job opportunities if they are grant funded and their positions are not guaranteed," she said.

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