Covid stipends cause outcry at Alameda County Office of Education

May 17, 2022

Alameda County Superintendent L.K. Monroe is up for election in June.

The superintendent of Alameda County apologized last week after her office spent about $600,000 in Covid relief funds on stipends for her staff, mostly managers who took on extra duties during the pandemic.

Giving the money to staff was allowed under the federal and state grants, but has riled union leaders who say managers – and not union members – got the bulk of the funds, and the process wasn’t transparent or legal under the education code.

The payouts ranged from $200 to more than $26,000, depending on the amount of extra work the employee did. Tasks included Covid testing, contact tracing, distributing masks and overseeing logistics related to opening and closing school campuses.

The incident comes about three weeks before Superintendent L.K. Monroe faces re-election on June 7 for a third term. She faces Alysse Castro, who’s been endorsed by the California School Employees Association, which represents about half of the 210 employees of the Alameda County Office of Education.

At least eight managers who received stipends donated money to Monroe’s re-election campaign, with amounts ranging from $100 to more than $2,500, according to campaign finance filings.

“Superintendent Monroe has acknowledged that the manner in which the stipends were disbursed has caused significant strife in the agency and with the agency’s labor groups. She takes full responsibility for this,” said county office spokeswoman Michelle Smith McDonald, who was among the managers who received a stipend.

The statement from the Alameda County Office of Education said its “ leadership is working to be responsive, transparent with requested documentation and will be collaborating with our labor partners to provide compensation to all employees in the agency for their extraordinary commitment to our students and schools,” she said. “As leaders, we live our ACOE values and use our mistakes as an opportunity to grow and do better by the amazing agency that we serve.”

The county school board reviewed the stipends on Tuesday but didn’t take action. Under the state education code, county superintendents can’t give stipends of more than $10,000 without board discussion.

Superintendent Monroe did not receive a stipend.

The Alameda County Office of Education provides support for Alameda County’s 18 school districts, including budget oversight and professional development for teachers, and runs schools for students in juvenile detention or who are pregnant or parenting.

The office received about $15 million in Covid relief funds from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund and the California Department of Public Health during Covid.

Both grants allow for schools and districts to spend the money on staff who work on Covid-related tasks, ranging from student learning loss to Covid testing, and many did. In fact, Gov. Newsom and President Biden have both encouraged districts to spend the money on staff.

Kindra Britt, director of communications and strategy for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, said that Covid relief stipends played a crucial role in retaining staff and keeping schools functioning during an extremely stressful time.

“We were in a time when staff were working seven days a week, passing out laptops or meals on the weekends, doing Covid testing and contact tracing, and doing anything else that was needed to keep our students safe,” Britt said. “Our educators were grateful for flexible funding and encouraged by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to utilize the funds for short-term strategies or long-term investments. Basically, whatever it took to keep schools open safely.”

Union members don’t dispute the need for staff stipends. They just want the money distributed more fairly, said Veronica Olivares, president of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association and a database specialist for the county office’s school at juvenile hall. Union members spent months on the front lines of the pandemic and deserve stipends comparable to those managers received, she said.

“It’s demoralizing. People are wondering why one person got $3,000, for example, while other people got nothing,” Olivares said. “The inequity is so evident.”

To rectify the situation, managers offered about $400,000 in stipends to union members, as well. That would bring the total amount of stipends to over $1 million. The two sides have not yet agreed on stipend amounts, but negotiations are continuing.

“Everyone wants to move on, at this point,” Olivares said. “We just want to come to an agreement that’s fair and leaves everyone feeling valued.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story misstated Education Code 1302. Boards are required to discuss, not approve, staff stipends.

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