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FUSD schedules forums on COVID relief funds
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FLORENCE — More opportunities for students to catch up on learning, improved science and social studies curricula and more resources to help teachers are some of the ideas being discussed in Florence Unified School District for spending the district’s latest round of federal COVID-19 relief funding.

FUSD is holding a series of online forums for public input. Upcoming forms will be held at 5:30 p.m. today (June 10) and June 17. Members of the public may register at http://bit.ly/FUSDESSER . The funding is called Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER. The first forum was June 3 and may be seen on the FUSD Video and Live Stream Channel on YouTube.

The federal government’s main requirements for using the money are to devote at least 20% to “learning loss” resulting from the pandemic. FUSD prefers to call it “learning opportunity … but it’s actually to address gaps in learning that have occurred due to the challenges of the pandemic,” Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie said at the June 3 forum.

The government’s other priorities are to serve academic and social needs, and serve vulnerable populations, such as foster children.

FUSD is planning to help students who may have fallen behind in the pandemic with options such as a summer academy, preschool, an after-school program and an extended school day. In response to an increased demand for online learning, the district is planning to spend $265,000 on online school staff.

FUSD further plans to spend $1 million over three years on its K-12 online curriculum and science and social studies curricula.

Leckie said FUSD has already worked in recent years for major improvements in its math and ELA (English and language arts) curricula. “We want to make sure we’re also using these funds to enhance our science and social studies through this process, and make sure our students have access to those high-quality materials and curriculum as well.”

But the greatest factor in a student’s success is the teacher. “So we would be remiss … if we didn’t look at how we can improve getting the best teacher we can in front of every single student,” Leckie said. FUSD has four strategies — high quality preschool, improved gifted programs, professional learning and staff retention, all at a cost of $2.7 million.

“We’re going to do a variety of retention efforts to make sure our staff feel valued, that we can keep a competitive environment to keep staff in our district and be successful, and knowing this is the place where they’re going to have the most impact on students,” Leckie said.

FUSD Chief Financial Officer Denice Erickson said when schools closed for the pandemic, FUSD kept its staff employed. School funding is generated by attendance, and when students weren’t in class, it made a $9.5 million dent in FUSD’s budget.

The district has also not passed a budget override or bond issue recently, further tightening the budget, Erickson said.

Other ideas the district has for spending its ESSER funds include a centralized registration system to connect students with services and take these responsibilities off individual school sites so they can focus on other priorities, Erickson said. Cost is estimated at $330,000.

The district is planning a continued emphasis on cleaning and sanitizing so that students and staff feel safe. These additional custodial services are estimated at $985,000.

The teacher shortage has only grown worse during pandemic, and FUSD is planning to set aside $1 million for substitute teacher costs. Ideally over time, this cost will decrease, Erickson said.

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National commander says Legion working on 'Foundation for the Future'

FLORENCE — When the country slowed down for the pandemic, the American Legion kept serving its communities, National Commander Bill Oxford said Friday during a visit to Florence.

“The American Legion is still here, as valuable, as important and as relevant as we’ve ever been,” Oxford said in an interview before lunch at Post No. 9. He said posts across the country continued to provide drive-through meals, blood drives, virtual job fairs and grocery and prescription deliveries. “We’re still doing what we do; it’s veterans strengthening America.”

Oxford, 73, is halfway through his second one-year term, which was necessitated by the pandemic. A national commander typically serves for one year. “Historically, I’ll be the first commander to serve a two-year term.” His replacement is scheduled to be elected Sept. 2 in Phoenix.

The American Legion is the largest veterans service organization, with about 1.8 million members. Including Sons of the American Legion and the Auxiliary, membership is over 3 million, Oxford said. He said he works to recruit young veterans and build a solid organization to turn over to them someday. There are perhaps up to 25 million living American veterans, he said.

“Over the past few years, our membership has been declining, and my ultimate goal was to turn membership around and start back in a positive direction.” His theme has been “A Foundation for the Future.”

A Vietnam-era veteran from North Carolina, Oxford left the Marine Corps in 1970 and immediately joined his local American Legion post. Later, as he was raising his family, he let his membership lapse, but in 1986 he came back and has been active ever since.

“It filled a spot where I needed to contribute, and I felt like they were contributing to what I needed. … If there’s one thing, we need to invite every veteran to join a veterans service organization. That veteran will be helping that organization represent them. To any veteran out there, join a veterans service organization. Let that organization help you.”

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Florence Anthem still waiting for town parks
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FLORENCE — Anthem still lacks town parks and recreation amenities and there are no plans to remedy that in the year ahead, a Town Council member complained Monday.

“An entire half of the city is not provided services,” and neither are there trails for ease of access to facilities downtown, Councilwoman Kristen Rodriguez said. “I don’t feel like the majority of our citizens are being represented.”

She made her comments Monday as the council approved a tentative annual budget and five-year capital improvement plan. She noted the town still lacks a skate park in the Anthem area up north, and it’s nowhere to be seen in the CIP.

“We pay taxes, we want parks and recreation services north of the Gila (River), and the town has not stepped up to the plate,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like we’re missing the boat for another year.”

Town Manager Brent Billingsley told the council in an April budget discussion that he had approached Pulte Homes about a skate park a couple of years ago and was told the company wasn’t interested. But when development moves east of Felix Road, that new area will need amenities, he said.

The town may be able to talk with Pulte and another developer, Southwest Value Partners, about buying 2.5 acres for a skate park. Billingsley said in April companies are likely to begin building houses east of Felix Road in the next couple of years.

Florence Finance Director Rebecca Jimenez said the CIP is a “changing, fluctuating document” and can change beyond the current year. Deputy Town Manager/Town Clerk Lisa Garcia noted the coming budget year will be tight.

Garcia reminded the council this is the first year for Florence to operate under its new Permanent Base Adjustment, which local voters approved in 2018. Town spending will be capped at $31,691,433, which is slightly less than in the current year.

“We don’t have the (ability for) big expenditures to put our dreams in this year,” Garcia told the council. She further noted the town has yet to acquire land for a skate park.

Council members also noted the CIP again includes $200,000 for “Main Street Revitalization” in each of the next five years, but it’s never spent. “Who comes up with a plan to execute?” Councilman John Anderson asked.

Billingsley said town staff will have a suggestion at the council’s next regular meeting.

Vice Mayor Michelle Cordes said, “I’ve tried several times to spend that money” and challenged her fellow council members to come up with a plan. She said town staff works for the council, and the council needs to insist staff are doing what the council wants. “Let’s start doing our job.”

The CIP for the coming year includes $300,000 for the rodeo grounds, in case safety improvements are needed, and $140,000 for the expansion of the Territory Square development north of Heritage Park. The plan also includes $50,000 for the study and feasibility of a “Community Cultural Center.”

In all, the CIP projects for the new fiscal year total $11,653,400. If grants are applied for and received, the total could be more than $24 million. More than $12 million in projects will be funded by the state’s Water Infrastructure Finance Authority.

The 2021-22 total budget for all town funds is $65,792,740, which is the expenditure limitation plus allowable exclusions of $34,101,307. The council will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. June 21 to receive comments on the budget, followed by a special meeting to adopt it.

In other business Monday, the council:

  • Approved five new subdivisions in Anthem.
  • Recommended in favor of a Series 6 liquor license for Meghann Wright at 727 E. Gressinger St. Wright told the council she plans to serve small plates and quality drinks and is working toward an August opening.
  • Presented certificates of appreciation to University of Arizona architecture students Grace Miller and Allyssa Chiarello for their work on assessing the conditions of four historic buildings downtown.
  • Proclaimed May as Historic Preservation Month and presented the proclamation to Lynn Smith. Smith and her late husband, Tom, have been active in preserving the town’s history and historic buildings for 20 years.

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Florence council members demand action on 'complete mess' on Hunt Hwy.
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FLORENCE — Town Council members expressed frustration Monday with a traffic snafu on Hunt Highway and demanded accountability from the contractor and town staff.

Councilman John Anderson called it “a major problem for our citizens” and added, “we need to get it fixed tonight. We don’t want to hear excuses, the contractor needs to figure out a way.”

The town awarded a $1.2 million contract in April to Cactus Asphalt to rebuild almost a mile of Hunt Highway north of Anthem. The contract included a temporary bypass road to keep traffic flowing, but that path buckled and crumbled Friday, making it impassable.

Pinal County’s emergency notification system relayed a message Tuesday afternoon that southbound Hunt Highway will be closed south of Oasis Lane throughout the project. Southbound drivers will be detoured to Arizona Farms Road and Felix Road.

For a map of the detour, visit tinyurl.com/HuntHwyDetour. Northbound travel will remain open throughout the project, according to Pinal County’s message.

Vice Mayor Michelle Cordes called the situation “quite an embarrassment” and “very frustrating, more than inconvenient for those of us that live in that area.

“I realize it doesn’t impact you, because you don’t live here,” Cordes told Public Works Director/Town Engineer Chris Salas, “but for those of us who do, it was unexpected and pretty much not what council asked to happen. We were very clear in how we wanted this project to go.

“The signage is lacking in explanation of where the closure is,” and detours are inconvenient, she continued. “Supposedly there is some dirt road that you can drive, but I’m not going to take my vehicle on an unknown dirt road. Most of our residents would not.”

She continued, saying there’s no pilot car to move traffic. People couldn’t get home or get to work, and “it’s just a complete mess.”

Unprepared drivers responded with unsafe behavior, she added. “I witnessed some of the most unsafe driving I have seen in Arizona.

“There was lack of police presence, lack of organization. It was just a failure all around,” Cordes said.

She said the same contractor also inconvenienced motorists on its recently completed project on Arizona Farms Road. “People waited more than 30 minutes to turn onto Arizona Farms, same company.” She said other people complained about recent chip seal work on downtown streets.

Councilwoman Judy Hughes said when a contractor fails, the town should stop using them.

Councilwoman Kristen Rodriguez asked the contractor to “please don’t take shortcuts” in response to Friday’s setback. “I want you guys to do a quality job.”

Jeff Smith with Cactus Asphalt assured her, “We aren’t going to bend on quality.”

Cordes asked Salas the route he takes to work, and asked him to use Hunt Highway Tuesday “and see the frustration.”

She also scolded Town Manager Brent Billingsley for not responding to the scene. “That is unacceptable. You should have been there Friday next to Chris. You are supposed to be in the thick of it before Chris Salas gets there.”

Billingsley replied, “The town manager does care” and there was a team of people there Friday.

Smith told the council his company built the bypass correctly by industry stands, but “for whatever reason, we had a failure.” Because it failed when it did, work had already begun on one lane of the highway and it wasn’t usable. “So now our only option is to have one lane of traffic on the lane that we have.”

A milling machine went down and the company was only able to work a half day on Saturday, but Cactus Asphalt is trying to expedite construction as best it can, Smith said. “Our plan is to have the overlay completed in that southbound lane by Friday.”

Smith agreed the signs could be more helpful, and “it has to be better.” He said he’s been in contact with a company that has portable computerized traffic control devices.