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Schools to receive stimulus by April

Federal stimulus money will begin flowing to Arizona schools by the end of March, and state universities could see cash as early as mid-April.

That’s earlier than most school districts anticipated.

“It’s sooner than we expected and is certainly a welcome event,” said Sunnyside Unified School District Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo.

“We’re waiting to receive guidelines on how the funds can be used. Sunnyside is a Title 1 district (meaning it receives federal money for low-income students), and is a perfect example of what the president (Obama) has identified. We will use the funds wisely,” he said.

Isquierdo said $4.5 million is “a very rough estimate” of what Sunnyside could receive in the next two years for IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). It is expecting about $6.2 million for two years in Title 1 allocations.

Bonnie Betz, finance director at Tucson Unified School District, said, “I don’t know how much we’re getting and I still don’t know how it will impact TUSD.”

Arizona will receive a total of $4.4 billion from the stimulus package. More than a quarter of it, $1.4 billion, is targeted to help schools and universities save jobs, prevent program cuts and keep tuition from rising despite the state’s plummeting revenues and widening budget gap. The money is intended to last them through 2011, but because Arizona’s shortfalls are so large, it’s unlikely to do much good past 2010, state estimates show.

It is not clear if the money will replace about $260 million in midyear cuts lawmakers already made to schools and universities. Lawmakers still face about a $900 million gap in the current budget year, which ends in July, and are counting on the stimulus money to help avoid additional midyear cuts.

But as state tax revenues continue to slide, it is uncertain how deep future cuts will need to be.

In states where revenues have taken less of a plunge, stimulus money means extra cash for schools and universities to create innovative school programs. In Arizona, stimulus money means schools and universities can just maintain expected services.

Arizona will receive two installments of stimulus money over the coming weeks.

The first installment, about $186.5 million, will arrive in late March, according to a timeline released Saturday by the U.S. Department of Education. It will go directly to schools to help pay for educational needs of low-income students, such as extra tutoring, and students in special education. It is about half the stimulus money dedicated to these funds.

This is extra money for programs traditionally paid for, at least in part, by the federal government.

Most schools will get some money, but the greater part of the funds will flow to schools where at least 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunches, or about 60 percent of Arizona’s 2,000 schools.

The law appears to allow schools to relieve pressure on their budgets and use the money for other programs, in particular to prevent schools from laying off teachers and teachers aids.

The second installment of money to become available is the greater part of a $1 billion “stabilization” fund, the largest single amount of education-stimulus cash Arizona will receive.

About $168 million of the fund can be used by the governor to bolster any state agency, including schools and universities. The rest, $832 million, is specifically for schools and universities.

By early April, the state is expected to ask the federal government to release about two-thirds, or $670 million, of Arizona’s stabilization fund. Arizona’s gaping budget deficit could allow Gov. Jan. Brewer to ask for up to 90 percent of the funds to be released.

The state is expected to receive the remainder of the education-stimulus money between July 1 and Sept. 30.

Citizen staff writer Mary Bustamante contributed to this article.

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