Mesa Public Schools (MPS) won’t explain where over $32.3 million of their federal emergency funds slated for COVID-related expenditures went. The lack of transparency calls into question the amount of funds funneled into undisclosed areas potentially unrelated to education while teachers struggle for increased salaries and school supply funding.
AZ Free News inquired with MPS about their COVID-19 expenditures after readers requested we look into reports that teachers were asking parents to donate basic supplies like paper because they were running out — and apparently their district wouldn’t cover it. In its annual financial report submitted last October, MPS reported nearly $40 million remaining in their maintenance and operation funds
That led AZ Free News to look into MPS expenditures. The millions we inquired about came from their latest public Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) report. Specifically, we inquired about what was behind the repeated listings of “indirect costs,” “other,” and “etc” expenditures that MPS allocated millions of dollars toward. AZ Free News focused on these expenditures:
Page 8: the “other (includes indirect costs)” totaling over $16 million
Page 9: the “etc” expenditures under PPE totaling nearly $1.7 million
Page 9: the “other” and “indirect costs” together totaling over $554,000
Page 10: the “COVID relief positions” totaling over $122,000
Page 10: the “indirect costs” totaling nearly $4.3 million
Page 12: the “indirect costs” totaling over $9.6 million
With each public records request, MPS officials would refer us back to the public ESSER report. After several follow-ups, MPS General Counsel Kacey King informed AZ Free News that MPS could not fulfill the request further because explanation of those additional expenditures in full would require MPS to “create records.” Under Arizona law, government entities aren’t required to create records that they don’t have.
In all, Arizona has received over $4 billion in ESSER funding. MPS received some of the largest bulk of that funding, coming in second for most ESSER funds received: around $229.2 million, coming in second only to Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).
Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law a bill which raises the passing score of the Arizona Civics Test from 60 to 70 percent while noting that Arizonans have “a real responsibility to equip the leaders of tomorrow with knowledge of our nation’s founding principles.”
House Bill 2632 was among several pieces of legislation the governor signed on Thursday and Friday. It allows students to take the mandated test as early as middle school and requires that schools make test score data publicly available online. The enhancements to the test become effective with the graduating class of 2026.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Quang Nguyen, said HB2632 is important to ensure future generations understand our government, history, and principles.
“There are far too many Americans who aren’t equipped with this vital information to make decisions,” said Nguyen (R-LD1). “We must have an appreciation of our federal structure, separation of powers and fundamental respect for natural rights.”
In 2015, Arizona became the first state in the country to pass the American Civics Act which requires high school students to pass a basic civics test before graduation. It was the first bill Ducey signed after becoming governor.
And in 2020, Ducey signed legislation to establish Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Celebration Day, a day in which most classrooms across the state devote to civics education.
Then on Friday, the governor signed 17 more bills into law, including one which extends the temporary licenses of more than 2,000 health care workers until the end of the year.
Senate Bill 1309 was sponsored by Sen. Nancy Barto, who called it a simple, but necessary move to provide licensing boards with time to process full licenses or reissue licenses of health care workers. About 1,200 of those temporarily licenses have been given to nurses, who are in high demand.
“If these licenses were to expire, our critical health professionals would need to scramble to get relicensed,” said Barto (R-LD15). “This proactive bill ensures a timely renewal process to keep more people employed.”
Ducey’s signing of SB1309 was also welcomed by Dawna Cato, CEO of the Arizona Nurses Association.
“With an existing shortage of nurses, now is not the time to let temporary health professional licenses expire,” said Cato. “The Arizona Nurses Association fully supports the signing of this bill into law, as it helps the board process license renewals and will keep more of our frontline nurses where we need them – taking care of us.”
The other bills signed by Ducey on Friday were:
HB 2053 Department of Environmental Quality; continuation (Rep. Griffin)
HB 2057 Water Supply Development Fund; revisions (Rep. Bowers)
A bill prohibiting the interference or usurpation of parents’ rights to direct their child’s upbringing, education, health care, and mental health passed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. The bill, HB2161, drew in a number of both parents and LGBTQ activists to speak — parents were for a bill to ensure transparency concerning information about their children, and LGBTQ activists against.
The sponsor, State Representative Steve Kaiser (R-Phoenix), explained that the main purpose of his bill was to further secure parental rights, noting that he supported an amendment brought forth by Chairman Paul Boyer (R-Glendale), which removed portal access, mental health language, and parental consent concerning medical treatments. The bill still empowers parents to take legal action against governmental entities or officials and receive relief.
State Senator Christine Marsh (D-Phoenix) criticized that the bill was vague. Marsh said educators would err on the side of caution due to all the negative publicity surrounding them currently, leading them to underperform.
“This has got a little bit of potential for a little bit of chaos,” said Marsh.
Kaiser responded that parents are frustrated with the lack of responsiveness concerning information about their children in educational and medical settings.
Marsh pressed further what the interference of parental rights to bring up a child would look like. Kaiser said he didn’t have a specific example handy, deferring to parents lined up to speak.
A former Saguaro High School English teacher and department chair with Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD), Caryn Bird, discussed how her classroom was considered a “safe space,” and how she would allow a group of young female students who claimed to be transgender males to come into her classroom and discuss their personal problems with her — issues not relayed to the parents.
“In my time as a high school teacher, my classroom became known as a ‘safe space’ for students. In particular, I had a group of trans male students who would meet in my classroom, none of whom were actually students in my class, for some reason, but they would meet in my classroom at lunchtime to share with one another their experiences,” said Bird. “This peer group in my classroom allowed these students time to explore who they were without fear or retribution or fear of being outed.”
Although she didn’t mention it during her committee testimony, Bird also served previously as the co-chair of Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) Phoenix chapter until the end of 2020. GLSEN is a national organization dedicated to pushing LGBTQ ideologies and activism onto minors. For years, GLSEN has attempted to install their Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) clubs in K-12 schools; some educators are successful in establishing those clubs, and often adopt other names like “Student Alliance for Equality” (SAFE) clubs. Last December, GLSEN Phoenix advised educators to incorporate “secret libraries” in their classrooms to smuggle in LGBTQ and social justice curriculum.
Early last month, a GLSEN lobbyist and co-chair named Andi Young persuaded lawmakers to strike down a bill to oppose gender transition surgeries for minors. As AZ Free News reported, Young, like Bird, didn’t identify herself as a GLSEN Phoenix leader during her testimony about how the bill would harm minors like her daughter, whom she encouraged to transition genders after a decline in mental health. Based on the timeline of Young’s GLSEN involvement, it’s unclear the extent of influence GLSEN and Young’s work had on her daughter.
Parents in support of the bill insisted that these children aren’t the children of the government or teachers, but of their parents. Several schools were called out by name: Altadena Middle School for a teacher pushing gender identity ideology onto her class, and Cocopah Middle School for a teacher who persuaded the district to allow students to replace their legal birth names, dubbed “deadnames,” for their preferred names, all while earning awards for her work leading the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) club at her school.
An Arizona State University (ASU) political science student Jordan Harb opposed the bill, arguing that the bill would “denigrate” and “endanger” students and their individuality. Harb received ASU’s highly-competitive Flinn Scholar award: a full-ride scholarship given to the top 20 students in Arizona, with additional perks like mentorships, study abroad funds, and a scholar trip to China.
The House passed the bill last month along party lines.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) said that those elected officials celebrating the elimination of the income tax increase weren’t leaders in any sense of the word. The Maricopa County Superior Court ruled on Friday that the increased income tax, Prop 208, was unconstitutional because it exceeded the allowed spending limit for what the tax dollars would be purposed for: education.
The remark came after Governor Doug Ducey tweeted that the court ruling was a “win for Arizona taxpayers.” Ducey did note that he anticipated the ruling would be appealed but expressed confidence that the Arizona Supreme Court would also find Prop 208 to be unconstitutional.
Bolding issued similar sentiments in 2018, vowing that Ducey’s support for the demise of a similar tax hike would cost him his election that year. Ducey won comfortably, earning 56 percent of the vote over the Democratic candidate, David Garcia, who earned under 42 percent of the vote.
Tucson High Magnet School (THMS), part of the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), announced that it would host its first-ever drag show in early May. The THMS employees behind the event are Zobella Vinik and Sunday Hamilton, both THMS counselors that also lead the LGBTQ+ student club, “Q Space,” in which students learn about LGBTQ+ history and are encouraged to explore their identities. Vinik and Hamilton explained on the event announcement that the drag show would occur annually; the last day to sign up for the event was Monday, with a mandatory meeting for participating students on Tuesday.
TUSD spokeswoman Karla Escamilla told AZ Free News that the drag show was a club activity coordinated by TUSD students, not staff. The original social media post about the event identified it as the “THMS Drag Show,” with the username “@tucsonhigh_drag.” Escamilla added that the event not occurring in association with TUSD would constitute as gender expression discrimination.
“The event is a student club activity. It is driven by students, not TUSD staff. This is not an instructional activity and it’s being held on a Saturday. Tucson Unified has a strong policy of nondiscrimination regarding gender expression and restricting the free expression of these high school student club members would be inconsistent with that policy. Participation in the show is voluntary in all capacities (performances, lighting, audio & visual, and outdoor stage set-up),” wrote Escamilla.
The counselors created an Instagram page for the drag show, which followed one other account, THMS counseling, which followed the account in return along with the THMS yearbook account. The counselors also invited students to access a “drag inquiry form” using their Microsoft Office student account. AZ Free News was unable to access the form by press time. The original Instagram post of a flyer announcing the event was removed.
One of the counselors behind the event, Hamilton, is a transgender man whose legal name is “April Hamilton,” once a star student and athlete hailing from Cienega High School. In a podcast during her final year of working as a University of Arizona (UArizona) graduate student within the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Hamilton asserted that the “binary system” of gender was “violent and harmful.” Hamilton said at the time that she really identified as a “nonbinary gay boy.”
“Black women are definitely seen more as masculine,” asserted Hamilton.
The other counselor, Vinik, serves as the educator support lead for Scholarships A-Z (SA-Z), an organization working to help illegal immigrants earn a higher education and relevant educational scholarships. Among the organization’s biggest donors are A for Arizona, Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, the Ford Foundation, Graesser Foundation, Joe Kalt & Judy Gans Family Foundation, National Justice For Our Neighbors, OneAZ Community Foundation, Resist, and Unitarian Universalist Funding Program.
While earning a degree in Peace and Justice Studies with a minor in Latinx Studies from Tufts University, Vinik organized “A Resolution to Establish Equal Opportunity for Undocumented Students” through the group she presided over, Tufts United for Immigrant Justice (UIJ), in a campaign to make higher education accessible for illegal immigrants at the school. Vinik’s work resulted in the university awarding admission and scholarships to illegal immigrants.
Vinik has also worked as a preschool teacher and a K-12 substitute teacher, and earned a master’s degree in school counseling from New York University last year.
“[Zobella] is working to unlearn practices maintained by white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy and recommits daily to prioritize mental health, community care, and visions for freedom offered by Queer BIPOC organizers,” stated Vinik’s profile.
Neither Hamilton or Vinik responded to our questions on the event by press time.
Altadeña Middle School 6th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teacher Sara Adams was recorded teaching her students about gender identity and not trusting their parents on the subject. Adams said to her students that those who tell them otherwise, like their parents or other family members, are part of the “older generations,” intimating that their elders’ teachings of right and wrong concerning gender were a “hard line.”
“So, now keep in mind that our society has changed somewhat in ways for the better, okay? No longer for most people is that a hard-drawn line,” said Adams. “Ok? That line gets blurred. There are still people in our society, the older generations, who, that’s the hard line. That’s how they grew up. That’s their mentality. You don’t cross that line. You are a boy, you are a girl, those are your roles, you know what you are supposed to do.”
Adams encouraged her class to reject that hard line. She said it was a “good thing” that the hard line is no longer permanent, and relayed that the hard line would disappear completely after the older generations die off.
“But as your generations [are] coming around and the generations that are gonna come after you. We are hoping that that line completely disappears. And there is no line. And you are free to be whoever it is who you want to be. And you dress and act and do whatever it is that you want to do because that is who you are,” said Adams. “Sometimes it’s a hard line for some. Sometimes it’s a faint line. Sometimes you can see the line’s been blurred and then someone comes and redraws it. That’s where we’re still at.”
Adams asked her students about society’s standards for boys’ preferences and behaviors. Children in the class respond that boys can’t wear dresses, play with dolls, or “be pretty,” and that they were expected to only play sports. Adams insinuated to the children that their parents’ teachings on right or wrong concerning gender were inaccurate.
“What else boys aren’t you supposed to do? And it might be that you heard this from family members,” said Adams.
Adams expanded on one student’s notion that boys can’t “be pretty” by saying that meant boys couldn’t wear makeup, style their hair, or wear nails. When a student asked why a boy would do those things, Adams replied that certain people desired them and added quickly that boys shouldn’t.
“Because some people like that. It’s who they are. But boys aren’t supposed to do that,” said Adams.
Then Adams asked the boys if they were supposed to cry. When the boys respond “yes,” Adams rebutted that “society says no.” She then asked the boys if they were supposed to show their emotions. Even when some of the boys respond “yes,” Adams interjected: “No, rub some dirt on it — you’re fine.” A little boy can be heard crying: it’s unclear whether he was serious or not.
“Don’t show your feelings. That’s a girl thing. Aw, you little sissy! Isn’t that all you’ve heard before as boys? Don’t cry! There’s no crying, you’re a boy!” said Adams.
Adams and her fellow teachers in Kyrene School District (KSD) appear to have shaped the students to be in agreement with their teachings already. Several of Adams’ middle school students came to the teacher’s defense on social media, both of whom put gender identity descriptions in their bios. Both students admitted that the incident didn’t occur during their class period.
One Twitter user who identifies as a “merman,” @rraae7, claimed that Adams was their ELA teacher. The user claimed that Adams was responding to a book in their curriculum, insisting that she was an “amazing teacher” and that many of the user’s peers supported what Adams was teaching.
“This is my ELA teacher. She was responding directly to the curriculum and explaining to the class (not my period) how people view the kid in this book and how things were viewed at the time. That’s exactly why [in] this recording she said that your grandparents have probably told you this,” wrote the user. “This is so dumb that you guys jump straight to assuming, this is a middle school kid recording this, you have no clue what they are trying to do??!! Ms. Adams is an amazing teacher and I know MANY people could support this. I can’t believe somebody would do this.”
Another user who identifies as “she/her,” @Lauren_NotEmo, agreed that the point of the assignment was to discuss gender identity issues.
“Hi I’m Lauren and Mrs Adams is also my teacher. She was talking about this in class and this was about the book that we were learning in class,” wrote the other user. “I think this is ridiculous and not called for but this was not my period also when this happened.”
It also appears that Adams’ district would be on board with her use of class time. KSD submitted a “Visioning Survey” to parents concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), culture, Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT), and Social Emotional Learning (SEL). As AZ Free News has reported, SEL and this version of CRT maintain congruous teachings with Critical Race Theory.