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CUSD food service, IT staff provide support during school closures
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COOLIDGE — The Coolidge Unified School District on March 12 announced plans to cancel spring intersession amid heightened concerns about the global spread of COVID-19.

The initial plan, as discussed amongst administrators and members of the Governing Board during the regularly scheduled meeting in March, was to enable custodial staff to sanitize all school campuses and district offices during spring break in hopes of curbing the spread of the virus.

But by the end of March, when Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced extended school closures, matters dramatically changed for CUSD teachers, students, parents and staff.

In the midst of rapid changes and concerns over the individual health and well being of millions of Arizonans, some school district departments are working within social distancing recommendations to better serve students and their families as education has gone remote.

For the district’s four-person information technology department, the transition required staff members to help students and teachers move to a distance learning platform that is heavily dependent on online tools and technology.

But the shift was something the IT department was prepared to handle, said Sam Honea, lead tech for the department.

CUSD had previously arranged to bring programs like Apple Schoolwork into classrooms at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

“It wasn’t as daunting as it seems from the outside only because we were in the process of making this transition already,” Honea said. “It wasn’t necessarily expected that we were going to be doing it from home, but all of the availability and functionality of the full program was planned to be functional by the start of the school year.”

In light of social distancing measures and concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, CUSD’s technology department was tasked with rolling out the Apple Schoolwork initiative, which helps teachers to assign and collect assignments, and distributing iPads throughout the district earlier than initially anticipated.

Though they may have been prepared to integrate more technology into classrooms, moving to remote learning came with some anticipated challenges — the biggest being the necessity to help students troubleshoot devices and programs.

“It’s a little more difficult to help some people over the phone or remotely,” Honea said.

Helping students meant setting up a means for in-person interactions, which lead the department to establish a weekly help center where students and faculty can bring their devices if they require assistance troubleshooting an issue.

Wearing personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks, and strategically placing cones and markers to encourage those seeking assistance to stand 6 feet apart, technicians set up tables in front of Coolidge High School from 9 to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays to provide technical support.

Initially the in-person help center was designed to have only one staff member on hand to problem-solve and repair technical issues. But in the first week the service was made available, more than 100 people arrived on the campus seeking assistance.

With so many people in need of help with their devices, Honea said that the department had to extend its service hours during the first week with a technician working from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Since launching the face-to-face technical support center nearly three weeks ago, Honea said, the number of people in need of physical assistance has declined on a weekly basis.

But just under 8,000 people around the state having contracted COVID-19 as of Friday morning, face-to-face services like the technology department’s weekly technical support center may also mean those employees face higher risks because they interact with the public more frequently.

“It was our idea as a department to do this,” Honea said. “There are just some errors that unfortunately can’t be fixed remotely. We just do our best to help protect ourselves.”

And CUSD’s IT department is not the only group of staff members taking on that additional risk in order to support students.

Amidst closures that have been extended through the end of the school year, students who depend on the food they receive during the school day as their primary sustenance are now relying on to-go meals provided by the district’s food service personnel.

Dawning gloves and homemade masks, food service employees serve breakfast and lunch to hundreds of students four days a week. Cars will line the Coolidge High cafeteria parking lot, where CUSD personnel deliver the bagged meals to their window.

Since launching the drive-thru meal service, CUSD has served approximately 1,400 meals a day to area students. The figure means that food service personnel are coming into contact with hundreds of people in a day during a time when most are being encouraged to social-distance as much as possible.

An extension of the summer food service program, the COVID-19 Grab-N-Go meals program is open all students ages 18 or younger no matter their income bracket, said Johnny Jones, food service employee and former food service director.

The meals are available to individuals throughout the community, meaning that even students who attend neighboring school districts like Casa Grande and Florence can receive a meal.

CUSD has been serving meals to students within the community since March 23, shortly after Gov. Doug Ducey announced the extension of school closures through April 10.

Rolling out the program, Jones noted, required personnel to quickly contact food vendors and gather items for the meals in about one week.

Although meals are served between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., the district’s 22-person food service staff puts in about two hours prior to service time preparing the meals and additional hours the evening before to prep side items like fruit cups.

“It’s not like they (staff) come in and in two hours they can get every single thing done,” Food Service Supervisor Lisa Avila said. “It takes prepping some of the day before to meet the timeframe for the meals the next day.”

But for CUSD personnel, the work — and the risks that go hand in hand with it — are worth it in the long run if it enables the district to support the community in unprecedented times.

“We have a school district that (is) here for our people,” Jones said. “We are here for our community and, number one, we are here for our children.”

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Pinal managers talk impact of COVID-19 on cities, towns
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COOLIDGE — The coronavirus outbreak may have forced municipalities to make adjustments in their operations, but the theme reiterated by city and town managers throughout Pinal County is that for local governments it’s still business as usual.

City and town managers from across Pinal County participated in a forum as part of Pinal Partnership’s virtual breakfast held Friday morning via Zoom. More than 300 people registered for the virtual call, where local government leaders addressed how their operations and their communities have been reshaped by COVID-19.

Across the board, communities like Apache Junction, Casa Grande, Coolidge and Maricopa have closed commonly used facilities, such as libraries and recreation centers, to the public.

In Coolidge, council and staff members inside the chambers are distanced six feet apart on the dais and the floor. Although the city is still holding public hearings on certain agenda items, call to the public has been canceled.

Coolidge City Manager Rick Miller noted that recreational activities provided by the city of Coolidge have been impacted.

The city has canceled all city-operated youth recreational sports and may be unable to open the city pool for the summer if the parks department is unable to train its lifeguards, which the department currently cannot do in light of social distancing.

In the case of communities like Florence, the measures also included restricting public access to all municipal buildings including town hall. According to Town Manager Brent Billingsley, the closures were made over concern of the ample opportunity the virus may have to spread due to the presence of multiple prisons within the community.

“We have six different prisons in town (and) the primary employer in the town is the prisons,” he said. “When you have group quarter populations, the spread of the virus and the threat of the virus is enhanced from the normal population. It’s very difficult to social distance in the prison.”

Another concern, Billingsley noted, was the potential for the virus to spread beyond the prisons given that prison employees and their families live in Florence.

“We are still open, and our employees are still here with respect to doing business, and keeping business maintained as usual, it’s just electronic,” he said. “It’s by phone, it’s by computer, it’s by Zoom meeting, etc.”

But other local governments were reluctant to close their doors to the public altogether, and instead are currently asking patrons to follow a number of social distancing guidelines.

“We typically have a pretty strong demographic of individuals that like to come into the office,” Larry Rains, Casa Grande city manager, said. “They like to pay with cash (and) they like to ultimately interface with our team. So it was a bit more difficult for us to make the decision to close all of our facilities.”

City Hall, the Finance Department and Development Services are still accessible to the public, he noted, but the city has also implemented a number of social distancing practices, including putting up dividers between members of the public and staff in those departments.

The city of Maricopa was also among the communities that elected to keep some offices open to the public. Administrative Services Director Jennifer Brown said that City Hall recently launched a curbside assistance program, where members of the public seeking to make payments or fill out applications can call in and have a staff member come to the parking lot to assist them.

“From the beginning of this, our goal was to keep services as open as possible to our residents,” Brown said. In addition, like other communities, Maricopa has launched virtual programming in amenities that are currently closed to the public like the library and recreation center.

Brown also indicated that most city employees are now working remotely, with many departments now operating with only one staff member on-site.

With social distancing orders adopted by Gov. Doug Ducey and President Donald Trump urging members of the public to refrain from gathering in large groups, local governments have also had to get creative about council meetings.

Communities like Eloy have opted to limit the number of people allowed inside the council chambers and have asked some council members to join the meeting telephonically. The meetings are streamed live on Facebook.

In addition, many of the city’s employees have been issued laptops to enable them to work from home, Eloy City Manager Harvey Krauss said. The city has even adopted staggered shifts to reduce the number of employees working within certain departments at any one time.

When it comes to gathering public input from public meetings, some municipalities have met those challenges head on while others have simply done away with options like call to the public altogether.

Florence, which held its last two Town Council meetings via Zoom, has allowed for call to the public by opening up the meeting platform one hour early to collect public comments.

Similarly, Apache Junction has moved all public meetings to a teleconferencing format. However, City Manager Bryant Powell noted that Apache Junction may face challenges as it prepares to hold budget meetings.

“We are going to start having budget hearings and it’s going to get more interesting as we need to seek that input,” Powell said. He noted that the need to hold those hearings may lead the city to hold future meetings on Zoom.

But critical city functions are continuing to run smoothly, many city managers reported.

“Inspections are continuing to go on,” Krauss said, citing the unencumbered development of the city’s new police station as one example.

In addition, some municipalities have found a way to ensure job security for employees of specific departments that have been impacted by social distancing procedures. For Florence, that meant reassigning some city staff to offer more community-oriented services.

According to Billingsley, many staff members from the library and the Parks and Recreation Department were reassigned to grocery-shop for older members of the community as a way to better serve citizens that fall into the more vulnerable population.

Superior is also working with the Copper Corridor Economic Development Coalition to put together a concierge service for local businesses that are still operating but have severe restrictions under social distancing guidelines.

Yet other parts of local economies are still thriving during this time, Superior Town Manager Todd Pryor said.

With much of Superior’s future economic development reliant on companies like Resolution Copper, Pryor indicated that the town has not seen interest among companies looking into relocating to Superior dwindle.

“There’s a lot of development in our community that are long-term projects run by multinationals,” Pryor said. “The background activity and the focus on recovery that we were working on before there was another crisis is going to continue and we’re going to come out of it strong and ready to keep going.”

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Coolidge council approves taking over Artisan Village lease
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COOLIDGE — The city will be taking over responsibility for Artisan Village of Coolidge’s lease with the Coolidge Unified School District following a 5-0 vote.

According to City Attorney Denis Fitzgibbons, the approval of the item, which was placed on Monday evening’s City Council agenda, names the city as the assignee of the agreement between the Artisan Village’s parent organization — the Coolidge Performing Arts Center Foundation — and the district.

The option to take over the lease was brought before the council after City Manager Rick Miller received a letter from CPAC Foundation President Mike Henry, declaring that the foundation was having difficulty meeting its lease agreement obligations.

According to the letter, under the terms of the agreement between CUSD and the foundation, the nonprofit withholds the right to reassign the agreement to another entity.

Assuming responsibility for the lease would mean that the city would terminate making payments to the CPAC Foundation and Artisan Village, which currently amounts to about $23,000 per year. Instead, the city would direct those payment toward the lease.

However, the decision also means that the city will pay an additional $7,000 per year to the district under the current terms of the lease.

As outlined by its current agreement with CUSD, Artisan Village is required to pay $2,500 per month toward its lease. The monthly payments were scheduled to grow on a yearly basis until 2024, when the Village would have been asked to pay the remaining balance on the old school property — $119,000 — in order to purchase it.

The CPAC Foundation, according to a council action form submitted by city staff, does not generate enough revenue to purchase the property.

But with the city taking over the lease, the agreement may change.

According to Fitzgibbons, the purchase price of the property that currently houses the Artisan Village, the Pinal Geology and Mineral Museum and the Coolidge Chamber of Commerce is currently listed at $190,000.

With every passing year that the lease is renewed, that purchase price will come down, he said. In addition, on the anniversary of the lease each year the city would have the option to purchase the property outright or could choose to renew the lease for another year.

“This is an opportunity I think for the city to take a property that is in a great location,” Miller said. He noted that by taking over the lease, the city could use the property to house a number of municipal programs including many of those run by the Parks and Recreation Department.

Miller also stated that if the city were to go through with purchasing the property down the line, it would be acquiring a chunk of land that takes up approximately two blocks along a prime location — Arizona Boulevard — for a reasonable price.

Some council members agreed.

“I just think you really can’t go wrong with the price,” Councilman Benjamin Navarro said. “For the minimal price we have to put out to secure that building, even with everything that’s going on, I think it’s a good idea to move forward.”

His sentiment was shared by Councilman Steve Hudson, who likened the future potential of the North School property to that of the old Casa Grande Union High School, which now functions as City Hall in Casa Grande.

“I think it’s a landmark. It’s a beautiful building now. It stands out, (and) it’s an asset to the city of Casa Grande,” Hudson said. “You look at what this could do for the city of Coolidge, it’s a great opportunity.”

In his letter, Henry also asked that the city allow the chamber and the gem and mineral museum to continue their operations in their current locations as “community assets.”

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Coolidge to move forward with aquatic center construction
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COOLIDGE — With a volatile stock market created by the current pandemic, the city of Coolidge is moving forward with plans for construction of a $5 million aquatic center and road improvements along Northern Avenue in hopes of using that volatility to its advantage.

The City Council approved a preconstruction contract with Hayden Building Corporation, officially putting plans into gear for the development of the brand new aquatic center, at Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Roadway improvements along Northern Avenue between Arizona Boulevard and Ninth Street and the construction of the new aquatic facility will be funded through the sale of municipal bonds, approved by voters last November with the passage of Proposition 434.

Construction on the project will likely start around Aug. 31, Parks and Recreation Director Ricky LaPaglia said. The start date would enable the pool to operate during the following summer — should concerns about COVID-19 subside.

At the very latest, LaPaglia noted, the aquatic center would have to be completed by May 3, 2021, to allow city staff enough time to learn how to operate the new facility before opening for the summer.

Though the hope is that roadwork on Northern Avenue will be completed by around the same time, with updates having to be made to the infrastructure below the road itself, the anticipated timetable on the roadwork was a little less clear. Officials from Hayden stated that the roadwork will likely be completed in stages.

LaPaglia said that residents living along the street, as well as the Coolidge Unified School District, would be kept apprised of any anticipated construction delays.

With Coolidge expected to begin its bond sale sometime in the near future, some council members were concerned about how the current state of the economy might impact the ability to sell the bonds. According to City Finance Director Gabe Garcia, the current unpredictability of the stock market will likely work in the city’s favor.

Municipal bonds, he noted, are generally viewed by investors as more attractive during times of market instability. In addition, taxpayers are expected to save money as interest rates on the bonds are expected to be relatively low, he noted.