Gilbert Public Schools The Gilbert Public Schools governing board.
Gilbert Public Schools

The reduction in staff resulted in cost savings that the district is using to balance next year’s budget and raise salaries.

Gilbert Public Schools voted Tuesday to approve pay raises and stipends to employees— just two weeks after it voted to lay off 152 teachers in the district.

On March 30, district officials said they were eliminating teacher positions at the end of the year as the district approached a looming financial cliff that could not be staved off with state or federal funding. 

Many public schools saw dramatic drops in enrollment last year during the pandemic, which could mean severe financial consequences under the state’s funding model. Gilbert estimated it could see a budget decrease by roughly $9.4 million through next year.

During the emotional board meeting last month, several teachers pleaded with the district to hold off and wait until it had more information on how much money it would receive from the federal American Rescue Plan. The plan specifically carves out money for schools to safely return to in-person learning.

But on Tuesday, the district voted to allocate over $11 million to employee raises and stipends for the 2021-2022 school year, in an effort to keep salaries competitive, according to a district agenda item.

A district spokesperson told The Copper Courier Tuesday that the reduction in staff resulted in cost savings that the district is using to balance next year’s budget, which includes raising salaries.

“Gilbert Public Schools is committed to continuing our work to ensure that we invest in and support our employees by providing competitive salaries, a key part of our district’s strategic operating plan and approach to achieving employee excellence,” district spokesperson Dawn Antestenis said.

Angela Philpot, an English Language Learner teacher at Desert Ridge Junior High and one of the teachers laid off by the district, said Tuesday that the district only had savings for raises because they chose to eliminate the positions of 152 educators.

“I didn’t think it could be worse than the last board meeting, and then it got worse,” she said.

The amount of one-time state and federal funding that Gilbert Public Schools has received this year to offset costs related to the coronavirus pandemic. Gilbert is projected to receive up to $20 million from this latest round of federal funding.
Gilbert Public Schools

Where Is the Money for Raises Coming From?

Antestenis said the raises would be funded by ongoing monetary sources, not one-time federal funds.

The American Rescue Plan was approved by President Joe Biden last month and allocated nearly $122 billion in relief for K-12 schools across the country under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Gilbert estimated it could receive up to $20 million from this latest round of federal funding, according to budget documents posted by the district.

During a board meeting last month, the district said the federal relief was one-time money that wouldn’t account for ongoing expenses like teacher salaries. While the district has a tremendous amount of one-time funding available, Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Bonnie Betz explained that relying on it could result in a financial cliff where the district has more expenses than money to fund them. 

“Any mitigation strategy that we would come up with would be subject to one-time (funds),” Betz said. “We would be delaying the inevitable.”

At least 20% of the federal money must be used for summer school and tutoring to address learning loss, but the money is also meant to help schools avoid layoffs and hire additional personnel if needed.

Gilbert used $9.7 million from the last round of federal money to fund teacher salaries and avoid pay cuts or furloughs, according to budget documents. The district is estimating that this new round of federal funding could be twice the amount of the last round of federal funding. 

The district voted Tuesday to use at least part of the federal money, about $6.7 million, to pay out two 1.5% stipends for all district employees during the 2021-2022 school year. They also approved a 2% increase in salaries—excluding those making minimum wage—in an attempt to stay competitive. 

That money will account for $4.4 million and will come from ongoing funding sources, according to the agenda item.

Gilbert Public Schools is considering using money from the federal American Rescue Plan and various other funding sources to give raises and stipends to employees for the upcoming school year.
Gilbert Public Schools

Philpot said the least the district could have done was use the funding to retain staff, even if only for another year.

At last month’s board meeting, Betz also said the district needed to stay competitive with other districts that plan to give raises in order to retain teachers.

Board member Reed Carr said Tuesday that he understood how the move “looks to some,” but maintained that the move to lay off teachers and subsequently give raises were unrelated.

“If we backtrack (on raises) now, we fall behind again,” Carr said.

But teachers and parents said during last month’s meeting that the decision to lay off teachers during a pandemic sends a message to teachers across the state.

Paul Delrio, whose two sons attended Gilbert Public Schools, said the district’s treatment of its teachers was not going to help drive up enrollment.

“What’s at the core of any good school? Great teachers,” Delrio said. “This deters teaching. How you treat your teachers, it does its own marketing, and the word will get out.”

Teachers Frustrated By Lack of Public Comment

A handful of teachers were in the audience at Tuesday’s board meeting, but there was no public comment allowed for the discussion concerning raises and stipends.

Under Arizona open meeting law, public bodies are required to make meetings available to the public to attend and listen, but they are not required to offer public comment on an issue.

Leann Cordon, a 25-year resident of Gilbert and former Gilbert Public Schools teacher, asked the board after the meeting if the public would be given a chance to speak.

“In case I’m mistaken, they work for us,” Cordon told The Copper Courier. “You would think they would want some input.”

Philpot echoed similar sentiments, saying parents and employees should be allowed to have their voices heard if the board was taking action on an issue that impacts students in the district.

Philpot said several teachers had asked for the opportunity to weigh in on the issue of raises, but had their requests denied by the board.

“There were a lot of teachers who wanted to be here tonight,” she said.

She also expressed frustration about the lack of transparency from the district during its layoff process.

The district said it formed a committee to discuss teacher layoffs in January of this year. In that time, Philpot said teachers were never once clued in that layoffs could be coming.

The district decided which employees to lay off based on a rubric that had principals assign scores to teachers. Points were awarded based on several criteria, which included creating an environment of respect, professional development, and promoting campus culture. Teachers who scored below a certain point threshold were ultimately let go.

Philpot said teachers were not shown the rubric criteria until the meeting on March 30 where the board announced it was eliminating positions.

The news Tuesday that teachers would be given raises added insult to injury, Philpot said.

“No one wants to be competitive at the expense of their colleague losing their job,” she said. “I don’t know an educator who would be in favor of that.”

Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.