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La Joya ISD weighs options for $147.3 million in pandemic assistance

Members of the La Joya school board met Wednesday to discuss a big decision: How to spend $147.3 million by September 2024.

It’s a tiny part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed in March. The plan included stimulus checks, pandemic relief programs and $11.2 billion for public education in Texas.

About $147.3 million is earmarked for the La Joya Independent School District, which must spend the money to address student “learning loss” caused by COVID-19 and other pandemic expenses.

“By no means do we feel like this is going to be a way to be able to spend money — or anything like that — on whatever we feel like,” said school board Vice President Armin Garza, adding that trustees remain focused on students and teachers. “We’re going to invest in our students and invest in people that invest in our students.”

Trustees discussed the federal pandemic funding, which is called Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III, during a work session on Wednesday afternoon.

Districts must spend at least 20% of the money to address “learning loss” caused by COVID-19, according to a presentation reviewed by the school board on Wednesday. The remainder of the money, however, may be spent on any pandemic-related expense.

Superintendent Gisela Saenz provided the school board with a preliminary list of suggestions.

Construction projects that reduce the risk of virus transmission or improve air quality could be funded with the money, Saenz said. La Joya ISD could upgrade heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems; replace roofs, doors and windows to improve air quality; and create outdoor dining areas for high school students.

Other suggestions included the purchase of water bottles for students and 360-degree cameras for teachers.

“We want to make sure that teachers that have to do — for example — concurrent teaching, where they have to teach students virtually and students in the classroom, are able to do both well,” Saenz said. “And that students get the benefit of the teacher in the classroom whether they’re home or in the classroom.”

Districts may also cut themselves checks for COVID-19 expenses from 2020.

“That is one of the things that our business office is looking at: What COVID-19 expenses did we have, beginning March 2020, that have not been reimbursed by the state?” Saenz said.

Trustees, though, repeatedly asked Saenz about stipends and compensation for employees.

“One of the stipends that can be provided is a retention stipend for staff members that choose to stay with La Joya ISD,” said school board Trustee Alda T. Benavides. “And I think with the competition that’s out there that, perhaps, would be a good strategy.”

The money could be spent on retention stipends, Saenz said, as long as La Joya ISD linked them to COVID-19.

Trustee Espie Ochoa suggested that La Joya ISD review ways to compensate teachers who spent money on internet service, cell phones, electricity and other costs associated with online classes.

La Joya ISD could also provide a financial incentive to employees who received the COVID-19 vaccine, Ochoa said. Without the vaccine, La Joya ISD couldn’t return to in-person instruction.

“Because they, themselves, were making sure that they were safeguarding our students,” Ochoa said. “And letting our parents know that it was safe for their children to come back to school.”

La Joya ISD must submit the plan in July. The funding could be released as soon as September.

 

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