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Just before Evanston/Skokie School District 65 employees head off for winter break, they’ll each be getting an extra $500 in their paychecks.

For a district which says it has more than 1,400 full and part-time staffers, that could be something like $700,000 for a school system which has been singing the financial blues for years.

In a Board of Education meeting Monday night, Superintendent Devon Horton said the money was a “retention piece,” for teachers and others who endured the challenges and stress of working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Celebrating our staff,” is how the superintendent put it. He had informed the employees about the bonuses in person, at the back-to-school convocation last week.

“That’s the entire staff,” getting the money, Horton also told the school board, “teachers, our custodians, paraprofessionals, everyone.”

But how can a system which has been eliminating positions to save money, which has millions of dollars worth of needed repairs to its 18 school buildings, and which has taken on debt to build a new school in the 5th Ward, afford staff bonuses, no matter how positive the purpose?

We asked District 65 where the money is coming from in the budget, and exactly how much it will be. Four days later, still no answer.

But it’s at least possible, perhaps likely, that the cash is part of the $10-million-dollars-plus District 65 has received from the federal government as part of COVID-19 relief packages since 2020.

With COVID being the justification for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER), you’d expect the money to go for things like personal protective equipment, or tutoring to help kids catch up from pandemic-related learning loss.

And District 65 has used many ESSER dollars for things such as that, because that’s what the law intended.

But earlier this year, in a presentation outlining what could be done with the latest round of ESSR funds, District 65 said nothing about bonuses.

Under “salaries and benefits,” nearly $5 million included potential funding for guidance counselors, overtime pay for health workers and maintenance employees dealing with COVID-related issues, plus mental health support, among other things.

But bonuses? Not on the horizon when that tentative document was released in February.

But now, they are.

In response to an Evanston Now question, the Illinois State School Board said that bonuses can be allowable under certain circumstances with ESSER dollars.

Citing the U.S.Department of Education, ISBE said the feds noted the funds “‘generally will not be used for bonuses, merit pay, or similar expenditures, unless related to disruptions or closures resulting from COVID-19.'”

And being “related” to COVID-19 might be the hook for these bonuses, if indeed the money is ESSER dollars.

The ISBE spokesperson told Evanston Now that , for example, a school district might use ESSER to provide additional pay “to address recruitment or retention challenges in light of the pandemic.”

And Superintendent Horton did mention “retention.”

“$500,” he said, “while it’s not a lot of money,” is still a way to express the district’s appreciation “for staying with us” during the so-called Great Resignation nationwide.

Other school systems around the nation have used ESSER for employee financial boosts, so District 65 is not alone, if ESSR is indeed the source here.

Plus, there is a District 65 precedent for paying bonuses with federal dollars.

Earlier this summer, the school board approved $3,000 in “Hazard/Hero” bonuses for each of the 53 Head Start and Early Head Start workers, who tend to be among the lowest paid in education.

Those dollars came from the supplemental American Rescue Plan, and were specifically for Head Start.

It’s unclear if the Head Start workers will be getting the $500 extra as well.

As for ESSER, there is a time frame with the money. Use it, or lose it back to Washington. District 65 says all spending must take place by Sept. 30, 2024.

In the meantime, those receiving the $500 bonuses will no doubt enjoy them, wherever the money came from.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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10 Comments

  1. It remains mind-blowing to me that the town of Evanston continues to permit its school board to further enable this superintendent to continue absolutely destroying D65. While opening a new school in the 5th ward is a wonderful idea, the short-sighted planning behind it (e.g., delay in opening due to somehow not taking into consideration the impact on Fleetwood-Jourdain) and the language used by the superintendent, only continue to show his ineptitude and his personal agenda. Evanston fails to live up to the image it portrays for itself. The schools are failing. The enrollment is dropping at a crazy rate. Wonderful teachers and administrators are fleeing as fast as they can. Students of color are continuing to be left behind. And the only thing that is constant is that it remains a school district of smoke and mirrors. None of it needs to be this way. We need new, forward-thinking, truly inclusive leadership on both the school board and in the superintendent position.

  2. You know what else cost hundreds of thousands of dollars? Unnecessary personal security for the Superintendent. Frankly, I’d much rather invest my property taxes in a little extra appreciation for the rank and file.

  3. D65 now charges working class families approx. $5.50 per day for one child to have a light breakfast and lunch, plus an additional $300 for fees, supplies & misc items, per child attending a D65 school. Why? Because D65, purportedly, can no longer afford to provide food and supplies to children from working families. So the Board that charges working class families approx. $1,100 per child this year to attend a D65 public school believes it is equitable to give D65 teachers & staff, who are among the very highest paid in Illinois, a $500 bonus in addition to scores of days off and non-teaching admin days, amid dismal academic achievement results? It seems clear that D65 needs financial ethics training and families need to elect more fiscally responsible and academically oriented Board members next term.

    1. For the life of me, I will never understand why the Board and district didn’t try to hustle a little bit more and keep the free lunch and breakfast thing going. It seemed like such a great idea and as a parent, was a total lifesaver and a good shared experience for all the kids too. It revealed the shallowness of the district’s claim to “equity” and “inclusion” as nothing more than words they can use to get consulting work (such as Board Member’s Lindsay-Ryan’s consulting firm), personal promotion (see Dr. Horton’s WSJ Article) or a stepping stone to higher office (Board Member Tanyavutti running for 2nd ward Alderman)

  4. I have no idea where the funds are coming from, however it’s worth noting that if you review the Finance Committee Agenda meeting there is ESSER I (CARES Act), ESSER II and ESSER III funding. The ESSER I funding has to be spent by 9/30/22, at least according to this document:
    https://oese.ed.gov/files/2021/01/Final_ESSERII_Factsheet_1.5.21.pdf

    ESSER II funding has through 9/30/23 and ESSER III funding has through 9/30/24, as you mention. Is it possible they’re just burning whatever is left of the original ESSER I funding? If so, a bonus to teachers seems like a good way to divide out leftover funds.

  5. Five hundred dollars as a “retention bonus”? Teachers aren’t leaving the district because they are not being compensated enough, they are leaving because they no longer feel their professionalism or even common dignity is valued or considered by this administration and some members of the board.

    1. Teachers also leaving because they are shuttled to other buildings/positions as punishment for speaking the truth / criticizing D65. I doubt $500 will cure the anger that the transferred teachers feel.

  6. Honestly, this is nothing compared to other districts. District 65 is one of the lowest paying districts in the area. Unaffordable health insurance and no consequences for students! Furthermore, inadequate curriculum options for students with disabilities. Regardless of the 500 bonus; this district will continue to lose teachers year after year.

  7. Horton and current board are fully responsible for chaos, disrespect of teachers, miscommunication and divisiveness in our community. And yet continue to deny, push back, blame, double-down and in some cases, outright lie about issues. All we can do is vote the board out when the next election comes up, starting with those who have supported Horton and helped stoke some of these fires that have led to a mass exodus of families. We know who they are. VOTE!

  8. Although I appreciate the call for fiscal responsibility from this board and district, I encourage you to focus your outrage about unnecessary spending on the increasingly top-heavy administration, endless consultants, and constant (and expensive) curriculum changes. We have not weathered the Great Resignation in D65 – it’s just beginning. Until the district decides to focus on teacher retention, the quality of schools will continue to spiral down.

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