Gov. Hobbs says Arizona state supt. Horne holding federal school funds hostage

Staff members at a nonprofit, notMykid have been laid off due to the reallocation of federal COVID relief dollars, now planned to fund a tutoring program.
Published: Sep. 8, 2023 at 3:40 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) Days after Arizona state superintendent Tom Horne announced a $40 million tutoring plan to address the learning loss of Arizona students during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Katie Hobbs sent a letter to his office, urging him to stop “holding school funding dollars hostage.” The governor says as much as $27.5 million in federal school funding is being withheld.

“For months, Superintendent Horne has played political games while my administration has fought to deliver millions of dollars of funding to Arizona schools,” Gov. Hobbs said in a news release. “This must end. Horne needs to put his partisan politics aside and do what’s right for the education of Arizona’s children.”

The governor says that Horne and his administration at the Department of Education (ADE) have been refusing to follow federal law for months by not transferring unobligated Emergency Assistance to Non-Public Schools (EANS) funds from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. She says that by not doing so, state schools will lose out on $6 million that will be forfeited to the federal government by Sept. 30, followed by another $22 million next year.

“By not following federal law, Horne is sending a clear message that he believes his politics are more important than giving every Arizona student the education they need to thrive,” Hobbs said in the news release. “It’s a gross dereliction of duty and it needs to come to an end, immediately.”

In the letter, Hobbs said the state received a total of $109 million in funding from EANS and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021. She says that while ADE was the initial administrator of EANS funds, the governor is the grantee and that ADE was required to return all “unobligated funds remaining 6 months after receiving” to the governor so that they can be distributed for general education purposes. The letter states that the six-month deadline passed without the funds being transferred, beyond specifically requested partial disbursements, and that the governor’s office asked the U.S. Department of Education to intervene. Gov. Hobbs says the federal agency agreed and transferred EANS funds to the control of her office.

Horne issued a response Friday afternoon, saying, “Every word in the governor’s letter is a lie.” He says that since the governor is now the official “fiscal agent” of those funds, the ADE doesn’t have the ability to pay anyone for work that’s already done or to authorize further work. “Due to her own actions, the governor now needs to take care of this problem, and not pass the buck to the Department of Education inasmuch as she arranged for the federal government to change the fiscal agent from the Department of Education to the governor,” a portion of the response reads. He added that the rebuttal would be followed by a more detailed response that refutes “each false claim” in the governor’s letter.

Supt. Horne announced the multimillion-dollar tutoring plan on Tuesday, which was quickly criticized by the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. AEA President Marisol Garcia says the federal government already earmarked $2.7 billion to the state to assist with pandemic-driven learning loss, with 90% of that money being distributed to districts around the state.

With the deadline approaching for funding to revert back to the federal government, state election officials asked vendors of existing tutoring services to submit data within five days proving students had made academic gains. Last Saturday, three days before Horne’s tutoring plan was announced, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley was notified by email that the state would be pulling funding for its Whole Child Approach program, which focuses on wellness coaching as well as social and emotional stress.

It was one of more than 25 grantees that lost federal funding grants. On Wednesday, the Valley of the Sun YMCA told Arizona’s Family it was blindsided when the ADE stripped away its COVID-19 relief money. “It feels really abrupt and feels like the rug is being pulled out under us,” said Jenna Cooper, vice president of community relations for Valley of the Sun YMCA.

It’s a decision that’s dividing students and those who may work with kids. A “notMYkid” employee who just lost her job due to the funding cuts says the organization is now trying to offer the same programs with fewer staff, and in the mental health field, people and relationships are not replaceable. More than 15 staff members have been laid off due to the reallocation of federal COVID relief dollars, now planned to fund a tutoring program.

“My world has been completely flipped over in a matter of less than 24 hours with no warning, nothing I can do. I feel helpless,” said Sunrise Mountain High School student Kayla Hodge.

Her best friend, Liberty High School senior Gwen Battilana, echoes that same hurt. Both teens attend notMYkid programs together twice a week. They say working with the organization has been life-changing. It’s improved their self-confidence, given them a sense of community, and helped them through issues with substance use. “notMYkid is not just a place; it’s the people that are the heart of it,” said Battilana.

“I won’t be able to see them ever again, which is just heartbreaking for all of us because the connections I’ve made were like none that I’ve ever made in my life before,” said Hodge.

Horne says money was taken away from groups unable to prove academic progress, but he’s now extended the deadline to give them more time. “We are keeping it open, so if we’ve made mistakes, we’ll correct them. We’ve already changed a couple of things in conversations with some of these groups,” said Horne.

These students say without mental health support, performance in the classroom would suffer. “When I first started going to notMYkid, my grades were slipping like completely, and now being comfortable and just happy in myself, it all falls into place like now I look forward to going to school,” said Hodge. “There’s actually been times where they’ve helped us out with our school work,” said Battilana.

It’s not clear what kind of proof of progress is needed or how long organizations have to potentially get the federal funds back. The former “notMYkid” staff member we talked with says the mental health nonprofit was never asked to show improvement in academic performance before, so losing grant money over that was a big shock.

Unrelated to the federal funding issue, on Thursday, Horne filed a lawsuit against Hobbs and state Attorney General Kris Mayes over some schools’ dual language programs. He says such programs “stunt their [students’] ability to master” the English language.

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