Finnegan Pendergast

Finnegan Pendergast, a third grade student, was one who asked the MPS board to reconsider the district’s decision to make masks optional in schools as of Monday, May 3.

The turbulence over masks continued at the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board last week.

After a study session during which Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson unveiled a likely – though temporary – $23 million budget deficit, 23 people lined up to voice their opinions about the MPS mask policy during the regular board meeting.

After Gov. Doug Ducey two weeks ago unexpectedly lifted mask requirements in schools and left it up to districts to decide on their own policies, MPS Superintendent Andi Fourlis did a quick flip-flop.

First, she stated there would be no change; hours later, Fourlis issued a statement that masks would not be required at Mesa schools as of tomorrow, May 3 “if Mesa Public Schools does not exhibit any high transmission indicators on the county dashboard as of Thursday, April 29.”

She stressed that, if those conditions are met, “the use of masks will be strongly recommended, but not required. All other mitigation strategies such as physical distancing to the extent possible, frequent hand washing, and use of hand sanitizer will remain in place.”

The day after her announcement, county data showed MPS moved to “substantial” levels of COVID-19 transmission, just short of “high community transmission.” The data covers areas served by the district.

This week, though, cases per 100,000 rose slightly from 86 to 89, MPS remained in the yellow/substantial range, shy of high transmission.

While Gilbert Public Schools, Tempe Union and Chandler Unified are keeping their mandatory mask policy in effect until the end of this month, Higley Unified’s governing board ignored warnings by the district administration and made masks optional last week.

At the April 27 MPS board meeting, multiple teachers expressed outrage over the policy change and said they were baffled about why it was made in the final stretch of the school year.

Liz Rivera, a social studies teacher at Mesa High, insisted, “Eliminating our mask mandate is inconsistent with every message we sent to our students and parents about being safe, strong and ready … Come to my classroom and you’ll see social distancing is impossible.”

“Why are we adopting a policy inconsistent with CDC policies?” she asked. “Is it worth risking everyone’s safety for 17 days of a few people being more comfortable?”

Shasta Payne, a teacher at Johnson Montessori, had a similar plea.

“Please keep masks in place, it is a reasonable accommodation until these children can get vaccinated, or at least have the option to get vaccinated.”

Mallory Siebers of Fremont Junior High begged the board, “Please rethink this mandate for the lives and trust of your teachers.”

Teachers union President Josh Buckley of Red Mountain High School warned, “I have students who might not come to class because of the change in the mask mandate”

One parent, Rachel Clausen, expressed frustration over the twists and turns the board has taken with its pandemic policies. 

“Every time there’s been a change it’s been a stressor for our family,” she said. “... we were assured as parents masks were our mitigation strategy.

Brittany Smith felt otherwise.

“Thank you for your leadership in ending the mask mandate or giving students and families the option to choose … Parents and teachers are leaving the district in droves because parents want to have a choice,” Smith said.

Two students spoke to the board, with each expressing polar-opposite views.

Finnegan Pendergast, a third grader at Pomeroy Elementary, noted “scientists say we should wear masks ... I want to be safe and stay in school to finish the school year. Please require masks.”

An older student, Molly Olson of Mountain View High, congratulated the board for “standing up for the students and allowing us to make a choice.”

She said in one of her classes, the teacher has not worn a mask all year.

“I have one teacher who at the beginning of the year told the class, ‘Would you be OK if I take off my mask to teach and stay 6 feet away at the front of the classroom?’ We all agreed. It is my favorite class …. I know my teacher and feel like I can talk to him.”

The Tribune asked the district if the student’s story of a high school teacher not wearing a mask in class is correct. At press time, no answer had been received.

During the placid, information-packed study session that preceded the volatile meeting, Thompson stressed the extraordinary times.

“This is the first time in the many years I’ve been doing this I’m bringing a structurally deficit budget in M and O (maintenance and operations) to the board at this point in the year,” he said.

“That is only possible because of the federal aid that has been provided to the district,” he said. “We have more options than I’ve ever seen.”

He noted figures are preliminary, as districts are waiting to hear what the state will set as the per-student funding level. 

“It won’t be the $425 (per student) from last year. This year’s amount is $733 per student which is a very significant increase in that funding,” Thompson said, noting the official per-student figure has not been approved.

Though he projects a $23 million deficit due to an 8 percent decline in students, federal stimulus and COVID-19 relief funds will quickly plug the “hole” in the budget, he noted.

The district expects some $230 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, which Thompson noted have a great deal of flexibility. 

“I can fill in the hole of any gap with ESSER funds,” he said, noting he expected to use the funds to pay 175 teacher salaries to relieve the deficit.

Meanwhile, an unofficial teacher-salary race is on.

“I know Chandler is trying to get to a (teacher) starting salary of $50,000,” Thompson said. “This is a race we need to keep up with.”

According to Expect More Arizona, Arizona ranks near the bottom of teacher average pay, at $46,404; the national average is $59,670.

According to MPS, the district’s teacher pay has steadily increased over the past three years, from an average $46,426 in 2018 to $55,826 in 2021. 

The current average is 20 percent higher than the state teacher pay average.

Higher teacher salaries may be on the way, according to a presentation by Dr. James Driscoll, an MPS assistant superintendent. 

He gave “salary compensation study results” from multiple MPS groups. All recommend minimum raises of 2 percent, with a $2,000 “stipend” for Mesa educators.

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