‘Where Are the Millions Going?’ Sweetwater Defends COVID Spending on Employees

Education

‘Where Are the Millions Going?’ Sweetwater Defends COVID Spending on Employees

For months, residents have asked Sweetwater Union High School District to account for how it’s spent federal coronavirus money. Records show the district spent relief funds on things like personal protective equipment and air filters, but also reveal millions used to pay employees.

Sweetwater union covid
A small cohort of students attend in-person classes at Chula Vista High School during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

For months, local residents and other stakeholders in the Sweetwater Union High School District have sought information about the district’s COVID-19 relief spending and wondered where all the money has gone.

With school classrooms still closed to almost all the district’s 35,900 middle and high schoolers from National City to the U.S.-Mexico border now a year into the pandemic, some question whether opportunities to make schools safe or offer students more support to limit learning loss months ago were squandered.

Newly obtained public records show Sweetwater has spent relief funds on things like personal protective equipment and air filters, but also reveal millions of dollars in COVID funds were used to pay employees – $6.7 million and counting.

Much of that spending alleviated pressure from the district’s normal payroll and is largely allowed under state and federal rules for coronavirus stimulus money, which gave districts a lot of discretion in deciding what can be billed as a COVID expense.

But for critics, every dollar spent on regular employee costs that would have existed without the pandemic is a dollar that cannot be spent on COVID safety or mitigation measures. And concerns remain over whether pandemic funds meant to help Sweetwater reopen and serve unique pandemic needs are being used to backfill an existing budget deficit at the fiscally distressed district instead.

“Where are the millions going?” read a comment card from Montgomery High school site council member Kathleen Cheers at the Nov. 30 district audit committee meeting. “Why are CARES Act monies being used for entire first semester salaries which do not involve extra hours?”

“The CARES Act was a lifeline to get your act together to make this district safe for opening and to accommodate the effects of the pandemic, not a lifeline to build your reserves,” read a comment card at the same meeting from Nick Marinovich, former chair of the district’s bond oversight committee.

Marinovich, Cheers and others who’ve long kept tabs on the district’s finances have petitioned Sweetwater leaders for coronavirus spending information for months. So has a citizen member of Sweetwater’s audit committee. A Sweetwater counselor also finds the district’s spending on existing employees like her suspect.

“It is critically important for me that we start getting the children of Sweetwater back into the classroom when it is reasonably safe for both the teacher, staff and the student, because now with vaccinations rolling out … what had been months ahead is now weeks,” said Jerome Torres, a member of the district’s audit committee and retired policy analyst for the San Diego Unified School District, City of Coronado and UC Riverside.

Torres got some answers at the Feb. 16 audit committee meeting – where administrators defended their COVID-19 relief spending as legal and appropriate – but said he was left with lingering concerns.

“When given the opportunity and public forum to tell the committee and general public that the Sweetwater district was not using coronavirus funds to supplant the general fund, the (acting) superintendent objected to the premise of the question,” Torres said after the meeting.

The questions follow the ouster of Sweetwater’s superintendent last year after a state audit found her and two top finance workers, now retired, may have committed criminal wrongdoing by misrepresenting the district’s finances. District officials miscalculated the budget by more than $30 million in 2018, requiring a rash of budget cuts. Sweetwater’s finances are still being probed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, according to the district’s external auditor.

Nothing indicates any external regulatory body is probing Sweetwater’s COVID-19 relief spending, and Sweetwater officials have even gone to extra lengths to account for staff time paid with COVID relief money by asking employees to fill out time logs of their pandemic-related work.

“We are confident we are using the funds appropriately,” said Dr. Ana Maria Alvarez, Sweetwater’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, in an interview.

“The choices that we make are in line with our goal to ensure we are financially responsible. We are using these funds as they are meant to be used,” acting Sweetwater Superintendent Moises Aguirre told the audit committee Feb. 16. “As you recall, one of the elements of this funding was to attempt to mitigate the amount of unemployment that was out in the broader community. That’s not necessarily how we are looking at it, but I do want to say that we are working with our partners to ensure that the funding we are using is appropriate.”

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Newly released public records finally show just how much money has gone to Sweetwater employee costs compared to non-employee costs like personal protective equipment, supplies, computer devices or safety precautions.

Sweetwater was allocated $41 million during the initial 2020 rounds of state and federal coronavirus relief funding.

District officials have spent more than $17 million to date, and $6.7 million, or 39 percent, went to Sweetwater district employee salaries and benefits, new records show. Officials have also sketched out plans to more than double that amount in the coming months when they’ve spent down all initial aid money.

School districts were under pressure last year to spend down a large chunk of the coronavirus money received by the end of the 2020 calendar year – before news came the deadline would be extended a year.

It was under that pressure – which impacted $26.5 million-worth of Sweetwater’s relief funds  – that district officials said they made the call to use COVID-19 funding to pay for a portion of employee salaries and benefits for various job classifications districtwide.

All nurses, for instance, had 50 percent of their salary and benefit costs paid with COVID money last semester. All counselors and psychologists had at least 25 percent of their pay and benefits covered. Those groups alone used more than $3 million in coronavirus relief funds, district records show. Add to that spending on people like attendance coordinators, after-school program coordinators, community relations facilitators, some teachers and counselors on special assignment, much of the workforce at the district’s new online independent study school the Launch Academy and a portion of staffing at the district’s learning centers serving academically struggling students, and the district surpassed $5.6 million in employee spending last semester. And that’s just the employees funded districtwide.

“We really looked at what their duties were during COVID. Nurses were really focused on being COVID liaisons at the sites for the district, so we decided to do 50 percent funding for them,” Alvarez said. “Most of their duties had to do with planning for COVID, COVID education or tracking COVID cases on campuses.”

In a presentation to Sweetwater’s audit committee Feb. 16, Alvarez outlined the “substantially different activities” completed by the categories of employees compensated with stimulus funds.

For psychologists, their new duties included changing learning plans for special education students to accommodate distance learning and coordinating professional development for staff to use online tools. Attendance coordinators served as liaisons between disengaged students and teachers.

For counselors, their new duties included working with attendance coordinators to re-engage students in distance learning, creating grief groups for students impacted by COVID-19 and outreach to families with remote connectivity difficulties.

But for Sweetwater counselor Michelle Beale, the revelation that a portion of her and all other counselor salaries were being paid with coronavirus funds, and a January request to retroactively account for time spent on COVID activities for the fall semester, was unsettling.

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Beale said she feels her work duties are not different enough this year to justify the expense.

Though she acknowledges helping a student whose parent died because of COVID, and assisting students struggling with the isolation of the lockdowns, Beale said talking to students about their social-emotional health – as well as academics and career plans – has always been part of the job. So has working with attendance coordinators to re-engage students with poor attendance.

“It may be legal, but it’s certainly immoral,” said Beale, who serves as grievance chair for the nearly 120-member Sweetwater counselors’ union. “They are basically moving money. It’s just a freaking chess game with the money. … What specifically am I doing differently that justifies paying 25 percent of my salary out of CARES funding when you didn’t even ask?”

Beale said she would rather see the coronavirus money provide extras for students, like “additional services, additional tutoring, additional small groups” on campus.

Beale said that when counselors asked for a $500 stipend last year to purchase things like computer ink or a desk to work remotely, the bargaining team was told the district did not have the money. “The district says there’s no money, then you find out they do have so much money that can be used for this type of thing,” she said. The district acknowledged denying the request but a spokesperson told VOSD it was because officials didn’t believe it was “a good use of CARES Act funds.”

In response to the time log request, the counselors’ union issued Sweetwater a cease and desist letter Jan. 22, demanding to bargain the issue and saying they were assured in prior negotiations the use of COVID funds would not result in additional counselor duties, nor the need to document their COVID-related time.

To resolve the dispute, the district agreed to pay counselors to fill out the logs.

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Though not intended to backfill government deficits, much of the coronavirus money sent to school districts last year came with lots of leeway over how to spend it.

Spending coronavirus stimulus money on existing school employees is permitted under state and federal rules for the funds, and public records from San Diego County’s 10 largest school districts show Sweetwater is not alone in doing so.

Here’s why: Schools cannot spend CARES Act funds – which accounts for a large portion of the money – on “payroll or benefits expenses for employees whose work duties are not substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” nor are they supposed to spend money on costs already accounted for in their budgets last March, according to guidance from the U.S. Treasury.

Aside from hard costs like personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing supplies and computer devices, the aid was envisioned to help pay for “increased expenses, such as the expense of hiring new personnel as needed to assist with the government’s response to the public health emergency and to allow recipients facing budget pressures not to have to lay off or furlough employees who would be needed to assist with that purpose.”

But a carveout to the March 2020 budget restriction also allows for the payment of costs incurred this year if they are paying for a “substantially different use” than what was envisioned a year ago. When it comes to employees, new pandemic-related job duties typically qualify some or all of that employee’s pay for coronavirus funding.

For Sweetwater board member Paula Hall, who serves on the district’s audit committee and works at San Diego Unified School District as a budget analyst, there is no controversy.

“They are not supplanting. They are using it as the guidance has been put forth to meet the needs of our students, and as we know them to be, which is always fluid at this point especially with the coronavirus,” Hall said at the February audit committee meeting. She called the concerns raised unfair, and said she is satisfied with the explanations from Sweetwater’s staff.

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Aside from districtwide employee spending decisions, Sweetwater’s principals have been given some discretion in how to use certain COVID funds on their campuses, and school records show they are spending varying amounts on employees.

At Bonita Vista High, for instance, there are plans to spend nearly $252,000 out of nearly $413,000 in COVID-19 money on employees there, or 61 percent, school records show. Meanwhile, Bonita Vista Middle School officials plan to spend 90 percent of the $144,000 they’ll get on employees, or nearly $130,000, and Castle Park High leaders will spend 83 percent of their $270,000 slice on employees.

Chula Vista High leaders plan to spend 54 percent of their $376,000 relief funding pot on employees, school records show.

Yet, with all the money spent on employees, Sweetwater – like most K-12 San Diego County districts thus far – is still educating nearly all students online only, according to a San Diego County Office of Education school reopening portal.

Less than 750 Sweetwater students districtwide, or 2 percent of the 35,900-student population, are participating in some kind of hybrid learning where they spend at least some portion of their time on a school campus, according to the portal.

In Sweetwater, that may look like vulnerable students experiencing homelessness or in foster care getting to spend a few hours on their school campus in a small group or receiving after-school or Saturday tutoring.

Campuses like Chula Vista High serve a few small “cohorts” of vulnerable students on campus during the week but provide tutoring virtually, rather than in person.

“We are still serving all 36,000 students,” said Sweetwater spokesman Manny Rubio. “Our reason for still being closed and our reason for still doing what we’ve done is 100 percent for the safety of our community.”

Rubio said county data for months has shown “South County is and was disproportionately impacted by COVID. Numbers were two, three, four times the numbers of county averages.” While the “gap is not as wide” now, he said the region is still elevated. “I definitely understand the concern people have put out there,” but the “data stands for itself.”

Jenny Salkeld, Sweetwater’s chief financial officer, acknowledged the district’s budget has benefited from school closures, like saving on fuel costs because buses are not running, but she said that is not what is driving the district’s closures so far. “Safety comes first,” she said.

Rubio said other costs have also gone up during the pandemic.

“Just as there are things we are not spending now because we are closed, there are things we are spending money on because we are closed.” Costs for things like nutrition, devices and remote connectivity, as well as specialized teams to help with distance learning are higher right now. When school resumes in person, “those go away and costs for other things come back,” he said.

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For many students in Sweetwater and beyond, efforts made to provide a robust education online-only aren’t working, as evidenced by the rise in D and F grades in the district this year, a trend that’s become common.

For Cheers, the longtime district resident, using coronavirus aid money to cover employee costs normally paid with regular funding takes away resources that could be spent on other pandemic needs.

“That money was meant for students and safe classrooms,” Cheers said.

For Marinovich, following the money so far points to a district focused on distance learning alone, rather than a safe return to the physical classroom.

Sweetwater union covid
Chula Vista High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

“Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right,” Marinovich said. “They may legally get away with this, but what is the right thing to do to open the schools?”

An email Marinovich received from the district’s in-house legal team Feb. 26 was particularly troubling: “At this time, there are no funds that have been budgeted for (COVID-19) contract tracing and testing from any funding sources,” the email said.

District officials told VOSD county facilities have provided free testing thus far, but a new testing contract with San Diego State will soon incur district costs.

Sweetwater’s school reopening plan paves a path to bring back more students incrementally “based on local health indicators.”

The next phase would see 10 percent of students on campus, but Rubio said last month that wouldn’t come before the county reaches the state’s red safety tier, based on case rates and other metrics.

But everything is up for negotiation, and new financial incentives from the state to reopen, combined with active labor negotiations, falling COVID case rates and increased vaccinations might move the needle quicker.

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As COVID-19 infection rates fall and vaccines become more widely available – notably for teachers and school employees – momentum is building to bring students back to campuses.

A new package of state relief funding approved this month will send another $2 billion to California schools that open more widely by March 31. That incentive, combined with another $4.56 billion approved for extra student learning loss supports in California schools like intensive summer school and tutoring, should “take all the excuses off the table,” for districts that have yet to reopen onsite, said state Assemblyman Phil Ting from San Francisco, who chairs the Assembly budget committee, during a legislative hearing March 2.

Ting has emerged as perhaps the most vocal critic of districts that remain entirely or mostly closed for in-person learning. Ting has said local control – the premise the state’s K-12 funding system is built on – failed students, families and teachers this past year. That is why there are new reopening timelines attached to some of the state relief funds this time around.

How districts like Sweetwater will spend the rest of the flexible 2020 stimulus money, let alone any new state or federal stimulus funds approved this month, remains to be seen. And there is a lot more coming.

Sweetwater anticipates receiving $34.3 million from the federal relief package passed in December known as ESSER II, another $27.3 million minimum from the state schools relief package passed this month and an estimated $76.4 million from the latest $1.9 trillion federal relief package, district officials said.

Negotiations with the district’s labor unions could determine whether Sweetwater will have a shot at the state’s new reopening incentive grants. The grants could send another $12.75 million their way, according to estimates by School Services of California shared by the district.

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