CUSD board on sidelines of Ducey-Biden feud - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

CUSD board on sidelines of Ducey-Biden feud

August 29th, 2021 development
CUSD board on sidelines of Ducey-Biden feud

By Paul Maryniak, Arizonan Executive Editor And Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services.

With millions of dollars and even enrollment numbers at stake, the Chandler Unified Governing Board on Aug. 19 voted 3-2 not to defy Gov. Doug Ducey in his emerging confrontation with the Biden Administration over mandatory mask policies.

Sparked by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge’s ruling Aug. 16 that the state ban on mandates does not take effect until Sept. 29, the CUSD board’s decision mirrored that of larger neighboring districts, particularly Mesa Public Schools and Gilbert Public Schools in keeping masks optional on all Chandler campuses.

Tempe Union and Kyrene reimposed mask mandates within hours after Judge Randall Warner’s decision and now risk losing $2.8 million and $5.2 million, respectively, in Education Plus Up Grant money.

Chandler Unified board members voted on a motion to leave masks optional with members Lara Bruner and Lindsay Love voting against.

The vote came after Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said CUSD faced an immediate loss of about $11 million and ultimately another $40 million in the dispute.

The day after Warner’s ruling and two days before the CUSD meeting, Ducey threw down the gauntlet.

He said districts with mask mandates would not be allowed to get their share of $163 million in American Rescue Plan money intended to boost per-pupil funding. He also said he would give as much as $7,000 to parents of students in those districts who wanted to send their child to a private or parochial school that had no mask mandate.

Berry told the Chandler board that the funds Ducey threatens to withhold are part of $350 million in federal American Recovery Act money.

None of the money is a given for any district because they must apply for the funds, she added.

Ducey said those dollars will be available to district and charter schools that are “following all state laws’’ as of Aug. 27. He contends that schools requiring students and staff to wear masks are not in compliance.

Berry said that even if districts were to fight Ducey in court, Chandler Unified could be struggling to pay its expenses.

“When things go into a court battle and into a lawsuit, it’s never, never finished in a very timely fashion, especially when it’s related to funding,” she said.

“That might change, but that’s been our experience,” she continued. “But right now, we do we have a lot of people upset about it. The governor is stating that you need to follow all the applicable laws. And then we have heard that the federal that the president is going to come in and assist potentially with that. But we don’t know what that means at this point.”

On Aug. 18, the nation’s top education official told Ducey his actions to block schools from mask mandates may violate federal law.

Ducey fired back the following day, calling the Biden Administration’s message “weak and pathetic,” and suggesting he may take legal action against the state’s three universities for implementing mask mandates.

In a letter to the governor, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said it is a “shared priority’’ that students return to in-person instruction safely.

“Arizona’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these goals at risk,’’ Cardona said.

In a separate blog post, he left no doubt that this is more than a hollow threat, saying his agency’s Office of Civil Rights may initiate a directed investigation “if facts indicate a potential violation of the rights of students as a result of state policies and actions.’’

“Let me be clear,’’ Cardona said in his blog post. “This department will continue to use every tool in or toolbox to protect the health and safety of students and educators and to maximize in-person learning as the new school year begins.’’

Vanessa Harmoush a spokeswoman for the agency, later explained, “So, if a parent or teacher or student feels like they aren’t able to be safe in schools because of certain laws in place, they can file a complaint. We can pursue an investigation and kind of go from there.”

Ducey and press aide C.J. Karamargin brushed aside the administration’s remarks.

“What is it about families they don’t trust?” Karamargin said, adding “The last thing we need is some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., telling Arizona parents what’s best for them.”

He also said, “We are confident” that Ducey’s plan to distribute the COVID relief program funds “aligns with federal guidance.”

“These are discretionary funds,’’ Karamargin said. “This is the date that we believe will give districts time to get into compliance with state law.’’

The Ducey-Biden confrontation comes amid a continuing surge in COVID-19 cases.

Chandler Unified has developed a layered mitigation strategy that carries increasingly more stringent safety measures on a school-by-school basis that depend on the number of infected students as well as the level of community transmission.

The transmission is at “high” for Chandler Unified, according to the latest available data from the county health department.

Chandler Unified’s cases per 100,000 are at 322 and positivity is 8.8 percent, the county data showed.

Chandler ZIP codes 85048, 85049 and 85286 all show that while cases per 100,000 are at a high level – all roughly around 210 – positive new test results are at a lower transmission level of between 6.9 percent and 8.6 percent.

The county does not break down inoculation data by school district, but data for  85286, 85248 and 85249 show that between 61.5 percent and 68.8 percent of all eligible residents are fully vaccinated – significantly higher than the city-wide full vaccination rate of 58.8 percent.

Karamargin rejected the idea that the governor has no authority to expand who is eligible for what are formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.’’

“Do you have some indication he doesn’t have the authority?’’ he responded. And Karamargin said that he needs no legislative permission given these aren’t state dollars subject to appropriation.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, called the Ducey’s moves “surprising and disappointing.’’

“The governor never wastes an opportunity to spend more money on private school vouchers and seemingly take it away from public schools,’’ he said. And Thomas said the moves “incentivize putting students in danger.’’

And House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding slammed what he called “Ducey’s announcements today to essentially bribe school districts with additional funding if they don’t join the growing list of districts opting to protect students and staff by requiring masks on campus, and unilaterally expanding private school vouchers, an idea that has failed at the ballot box and at the Legislature this past session.”

Chris Kotterman, attorney for the Arizona School Boards Association, said those federal dollars are intended for COVID relief.

And Kotterman said using that cash for vouchers and to penalize schools that have mask requirements is doubtful – particularly when eligibility is conditioned on schools actually ignoring the health advice being provided by both the Department of Health Services and the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control about how to prevent the spread of the disease.

“So, basically, he’s saying ‘If you’re doing these things that are recommended to prevent the spread of COVID and your kid’s going to that school, here’s $7,000 of federal COVID-relief money to send your kid to a place where that’s not happening,’ ‘’ Kotterman said.

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