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.