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Tucson's largest school district faces $8.5 million in coronavirus-related expenses
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Tucson's largest school district faces $8.5 million in coronavirus-related expenses

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

Tucson’s largest school district is facing a projected $8.5 million in increased costs due to higher spending and revenue losses brought on by the coronavirus closures.

Thus far, TUSD has spent $3.5 million on Chromebooks for students who did not have a device at home for online learning, over $1 million in curriculum materials and an ongoing $125,000 a month running two child-care centers for children of front-line workers.

“Our costs are staggering,” said Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo.

The district is also facing a possible $3.5 million revenue loss from being heavily in the red on its food bill, Trujillo said.

The district receives federal funding to feed low-income children. However, even though TUSD is only feeding a quarter of the children it usually serves, and it is therefore receiving a quarter of the federal dollars, the district has already purchased enough food to feed its standard number of children and is paying the same number of employees that would have been preparing that food.

The more than $1 million the district spent in curriculum materials includes a $70,000-a-week printing bill during the first month of closures, creating packets for children who couldn’t do their learning online, as well as emergency funding of $131,000, approved earlier this month, to buy workbooks for Grades K-4.

“We’re going to be probably clocking in at about $8.5 million in closure costs at this particular time,” Trujillo said.

To afford the Chromebooks, TUSD put some plans on hold that it had for next year, including school parking lot improvements; adding more librarians in middle schools and music teachers in elementary schools; refurbishing music, band and sports equipment; and more.

To offset the loss on the food bill, the district has to use a portion of funding it targeted for refurbishment of computer labs; classroom digital projectors and interactive whiteboards; and audio and video equipment in schools.

A few costs have come down because of the closures, which can offset some of the unexpected costs.

The district is saving in fuel costs as it runs fewer routes. And it is spending less in professional development since teachers haven’t been able to attend the typical conferences and workshops.

“To be honest, the amount of money we have available in the budget to offset is not much,” Trujillo said. “It’ll help us, but it’s definitely not much. And so we’re going to be heavily counting on stimulus money coming in to replenish that money that we’ve already spent up front.”

The district should get a one-time distribution of stimulus funding from the federal CARES Act, which Trujillo said is needed to cover a host of necessities for the life of the closure.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Recovery Act, passed by Congress in late March, will provide $13 billion to schools and districts across the country, with $277.4 million allocated for Arizona K-12 schools that have incurred costs associated with closures due to COVID-19 and another $69 million in flexible dollars for any education entity, at the governor's discretion, according to TUSD’s lobbying firm Triadvocates.

The Arizona Department of Education is still working out the model and time line for the distribution of that aid.

As things stand, there’s no funding mechanism other than the stimulus package to fund schools if they stay closed into next school year, which Trujillo said is a strong probability.

“If the closure goes into next year ... or we do the first semester in a state of closure or the whole year — that’s it,” Trujillo said. “Those dollars are going to have to keep services going, transportation going, fuel for the buses. They’re going to have to sustain our salaries. So we’re anxious to figure out what that reimbursement looks like.”

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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