When Paola Delgado was in middle school, she decided to have a life-changing conversation with her mother.
Delgado, then around age 13, came out as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“That didn’t run by her so well,” Delgado said of the conversation. “We just had a lot of fights, and even when I was younger, we just fought a lot. And one day, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m done.’
“I have four other siblings who I kind of wanted to set an example for.”
Her mother worked third shift, meaning Delgado often had to get her four siblings ready for school and eventually had to transport them to school. Neither of her parents spoke English or went to high school, so Delgado was her siblings’ homework tutor.
“It was hard because it was child after child, and well, school didn’t come first for me. They came first. Dinner on the table came first.”
After Delgado came out to her mom, fights became a daily ritual.
Eventually, Delgado couldn’t handle it anymore. She left home and bounced from one friend’s couch to another’s spare bedroom, finally landing at Robin House—Project 16:49’s transitional home for young women in Beloit—last October.
“I could finally have a home,” she said.
“I always thought about it as the whole Peter Pan kind of thing where some of the girls are now some of my best friends. ... It made me realize there’s more kids like me who’ve struggled just like I have, or even more.”
The scholarship gives Delgado tuition, a stipend for living expenses, an educational mentor and a paid internship, which she is enjoying as a community service officer with the Janesville Police Department.
Delgado said the scholarship made college a possibility for her.
“It means a lot to me because it’s just, like, I represent those kids who are like me where it seems like it’s impossible to reach their goals, you know?” she said. “I really thought it (college) was impossible for a very long time. And this scholarship really kind of enhances that it’s possible, that it’s actually real life, and sometimes you’ve got to go through things to kind of get there.”
Delgado hopes to become a police officer, a goal inspired by a former Beloit Memorial High School teacher, Jessica Schweizer, after Delgado decided not to enlist in the U.S. Navy so she could stay nearby for her siblings.
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said the scholarship benefits both Delgado and the department.
“This is just a wonderful opportunity really for both Paola and the Janesville Police Department. We have struggled to attract and hire minority candidates,” Moore said. “And this is just a wonderful opportunity for us, the JPD, to bring a great minority candidate into our organization and eventually, hopefully, hire Paola as a police officer.”
Delgado said her teachers have served as parental figures when she didn’t have someone to fill that role. At Blackhawk Tech, she is getting needed support from professor William Walsh, who is her IDEAL Scholarship mentor. The two talk weekly to go over Delgado’s career plans.
Walsh, who worked in law enforcement for 27 years, said Delgado will have success in that field.
“She brings a depth to the conversation,” he said. “We’re talking about policing in the modern-day society when not a lot of people really want to be a cop. So it’s a blessing that young minds still have that desire to serve their community.
“And when we get into these deep conversations on police interaction with the public and building that relationship, Paola exemplifies that with her life. Just the whole depth of her life and her experiences brings a maturity to the conversation and to the class that enriches the conversation.”
Delgado said she hopes to inspire children and help them find their reason to live. She thinks she can do that as a police officer.
“I can really make a difference and set more standards as an officer,” she said. “And that was also another big point where I was like, ‘Yeah, I need to go into the criminal justice system. I would like to make that difference, even if it’s just for one kid.’ I always say that I don’t need to change the world, I just need to change one kid. Because that’s what one teacher did for me.”
As far as her mentor can see, the scholarship will be better off now that Delgado is its first recipient.
“Overall, Paola is the spark, but she’s also going to be that test for the scholarship,” Walsh said. “She doesn’t know it, but she’s carrying a lot of weight for those who are going to do this behind her. She’s going to be the standard.
“And what a great person to have as our standard, as our brand-new, first-time recipient.”
SAN RAMON, Calif.
Millions of U.S. households are facing heavy past-due utility bills, which have escalated in the year since the pandemic forced Americans hunkered down at home to consume more power.
And now government moratoriums that for months had barred utilities from turning off the power of their delinquent customers are starting to expire in most states. As result, up to 37 million customers—representing nearly one-third of all households—will soon have to reckon with their overdue power bills at a time when many of them are struggling with lost jobs or income.
A study done by Arcadia, which runs a service that helps households lower utility bills, found that the average past-due amount by those in its network was roughly $850.
The crisis has emerged as one of the repercussions of the recession that was touched off by the viral pandemic. Though the economy has achieved considerable gains in recent months, about 9.5 million jobs remain lost. And many people have lost income even while remaining employed, leaving them unable to buy food, pay rent or afford utility bills.
President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue aid package, enacted into law this month, will provide some support. It includes $5 billion earmarked for people who need help with power and water bills. Combined with other government financing allotted for energy aid since the pandemic began, the total available to help struggling households pay utility bills is about $9.1 billion.
But all that assistance represents just a fraction of the $27 billion in past-due balances of U.S. households, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which helps low-income consumers. The aid will be distributed through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Caught in the squeeze are people like Paula Desper, who lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with her husband and the youngest two of their five children, ages 7 and 10. Desper worries about how her family will manage once the utility shutoff moratorium lifts soon in Pennsylvania.
“It’s come to the point where I look at a bill, and either I’m going to pay a bill or I’m going to buy food,” said Desper, 45. “I’ve got two little children. I will go without food. My children will not.”
After the pandemic erupted, Desper’s weekly hours and income were reduced by half. Her husband’s work hours were cut, too. Unable to afford his car payments, he lost his vehicle.
With their sharply reduced income, Desper and her husband fell nearly $700 behind on energy bills and more than $1,100 behind on mortgage payments. In the meantime, she worries about being exposed to COVID-19 at work, particularly because her 10-year-old daughter has asthma.
“I always wanted to do better for my children, and I feel guilty,” Desper said. “I have my moments where I cry because I feel hopeless. I feel like I did something wrong, even though I know it wasn’t my fault.”
Officials at agencies involved in financial aid for energy customers say the problem has become an urgent one.
“We have never had debts of this size before,” said Mark Wolfe, executive director for the National Energy Assistance Directors Association, which estimates that the total amount due has soared from roughly $11 billion, owed by nearly 20 million U.S. households at the end of 2019, to the more than $27 billion now.
Those findings mirror the study of electricity bills in 13 states and the District of Columbia by Arcadia, which helps households find renewable energy sources to lower their utility costs. It found that one-quarter of the households belonging to Arcadia’s network in those states had past-due balances on their electricity bills as of January, with the average amount owed nearly $850—a 67% jump from the end of 2019.
Even bigger past-due bills have been emerging in New Jersey, said Kathy Kerr, director of utility assistance for the Affordable Housing Alliance. Before the pandemic, people who approached the organization seeking help typically had past-due balances of $800 to $1,000. Now, she said, it’s not uncommon to see past-due balances ranging between $2,000 to $3,000, reflecting a crisis that cast millions of people out of jobs, especially at restaurants, gyms, concert venues and small businesses and left them consuming more electricity at home.
“People are at a crossroads,” Kerr said. “Do I pay rent? Do I pay bills?”
Moratoriums on shutting off power for past-due households had existed in at least 35 states at some point during the pandemic. In response, some struggling consumers chose to funnel their money toward housing, food and other obligations because they knew they wouldn’t lose their electricity or natural gas even if they skipped their utility payments.
Compounding the problem, American households have been using, on average, 10% more electricity during the pandemic lockdowns, which have kept them home more hours, with computers and other electronic devices, along with heat or air conditioning, swelling utility bills.
Now, the power shut-offs are beginning to lift, forcing customers to reckon with their piled-up bills. More than 30 states—including New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—are ending shutoff moratoriums in March and April, according to the National Energy Assistance Directors Association. California and New Jersey will do so at the end of June.
Some customers now facing outsized utility bills might have been lulled into the belief that they wouldn’t have to pay for many additional months.
“There’s a moratorium,” said Tracey Capers, executive vice president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that offers financial aid and counseling. “It doesn’t mean you never have to pay. That’s the concern that we have for people.”
Among them is Mikel Haye, who was forced into performing a financial triage when he lost all three of his part-time jobs after the pandemic struck. Suddenly, he was scrambling to pay the bills on a Brooklyn apartment he shares with his unemployed mother and two brothers while deciding how to spend whatever money was left: For food? Car insurance? The phone bill?
The utility bill often went unpaid, leaving him at one point with a past-due balance of $500.
“We took a risk, thinking that hopefully they will extend more leniency when it came to paying that bill,” said Haye, 24.
In the end, things did work out for him. With the help of the Bedford Stuyvesant organization, he managed to pay his electricity bill.
Not as fortunate, thus far, is Yomaira Romelina Heredia Melo, who was a hotel supervisor until she lost her job in the pandemic. Though she has managed to stay current on her utility bill, she has fallen $10,000 behind on her Brooklyn rent. A mother of two, Melo worries about being able to continue paying her bills while her husband is stuck in the Dominican Republic awaiting clearance from immigration officials to return.
Utilities are sometimes willing to negotiate repayment plans with delinquent customers rather than cut off their power. Still, a more comprehensive solution is urgently needed, said Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, who notes that Black and Hispanic households are disproportionately vulnerable. Markey said he expects Congress to draft legislation this year to provide further financial help to people struggling with utility and other bills.
“This is a crisis that wasn’t created by consumers,” Markey told The Associated Press. “It’s potentially a tragedy for so many of these families that could have a traumatic impact on their lives.”
The unpaid balances can also be a burden for utilities themselves because the bills must often be written off as tax losses if they can’t be collected. And Wolfe notes that if that happens, utilities will typically try to recover some of the money by pushing for rate increases that will affect all the households in their service areas, including low-income consumers who have managed to stay current on their bills.
Duke Energy, which owns utilities that provide power to about 25 million people across six Southeastern and Midwestern states, has warned that losses are likely from past-due accounts.
“I think we are going to have to find a way to forgive all this debt,” Wolfe said. “People have run through their savings during the pandemic, and now they are stuck. Even if you threaten to turn off their power, you still aren’t going to collect anything.”
Six candidates are running to fill four seats on the Milton School Board on April 6.
The candidates are incumbents David Holterman and Joe Martin, appointee Jennifer Johns and newcomers Leslie Hubert, Sherri Shaw and Jay Williams.
Adams Publishing Group asked them these questions. Answers are edited for brevity.
Q: Why are you running for school board?
Holterman: “My wife and I live and work in the community, and we deeply care about the education of our district’s children. The administration, the staff and the board were faced with extraordinary challenges during the past year, and I believe we made thoughtful and forward-thinking decisions during this time. Overall, Milton is a ‘district of choice,’ and I want to do my part to help it remain successful.”
Hubert: “I’m running because, as a citizen who is knowledgeable in how education is supposed to function, I feel a growing disconnect between the school board and the community it is supposed to represent. I want to strengthen the relationship. ... As a board member, I’ll be focused on empowering parents, supporting teachers and bridging the communication gap between the school board and the community. ... I aim to advocate for all citizens in our district.”
Johns: “I want to serve because I love education and believe as a group if we concentrate on putting our students first and work together, we can make the district one of the best in the state. I enjoy being part of positive organizations, and I believe the school district is just that. I bring value and extensive experience to the board, based on my past careers and volunteer experiences.”
Martin: “I am running ... to continue to advocate for the students and families of Milton. I believe we are delivering on our mission of student opportunity and achievement while engaging our community. With the support of the community, we can continue to provide excellent outcomes for our students.”
Shaw: “I think there needs to be more accountability for tax dollars spent. Being a business owner for over 30 years, I have learned that accountability is essential in the proper operation of any business. Every child needs a quality education to provide them the opportunity to succeed. However, this should be provided in a fiscally responsible way.”
Williams: “I have resided in the Milton school system for well over 40 years. This is my hometown and where I chose to raise my children. I believe we have one of the best school systems in Wisconsin; however, there is always room for improvement. ... If elected, I will try to be a voice for the people. I feel that too many things are being done without listening to the public, parents, teachers and students. We need to work on gaining back the trust of our district members.”
Q: What do you see are the top three issues the school board will face?
Holterman: “Our immediate challenge is helping kids that struggled during the pandemic get caught up both academically and socially. Extending our time horizon, we need to continue to reinforce our foundation of success. This means retaining talented staff, maintaining quality facilities and producing students who are ready to be successful members of the community. To do these things long term, we need to make prudent fiscal decisions.”
Hubert: “Making and implementing a plan to bring students back up to grade level within the next year and being proactive in implementing interventions that will allow teachers to target the needs of each student. ... The school board also needs to make specific adjustments within the budget to allow for future district needs five, 10, 20 years down the road.”
Hubert also thinks the district should build more public-private partnerships.
Johns: “The board will need to continue to address challenges as it relates to poverty, classroom size, technology, state funding, transportation and the health and safety of the students. We will face these challenges as they present themselves with our core values and mission as our guide.
“Things right now are good. ... The most important issue facing the district is how do we make this sustainable.”
Martin: “I believe the top issues facing our district are: successfully completing our building improvements and transitioning into the new and renovated spaces; identifying any gaps in student achievement from the environment we are currently in and planning to close those gaps; and continuing to balance providing a high-quality education with being responsible stewards of tax resources.”
Shaw: “Children being in school full time, getting children caught up that have fallen behind with online classes, and financial responsibility.”
Williams: “One, how the current school board is handling the funding allocated to the school and how we can work on reducing the taxpayers’ liabilities. Two, regaining the public’s trust. Transparency by the board to the public about how the funds are being spent and why. Three, COVID-19 and how the school district is planning to keep moving forward while keeping our students safe.”
Q: What will guide your decision-making as a board member?
Holterman: “I try and take a balanced approach to each decision. To do this, I consider both what a decision will do for the well-being of our students and whether or not we can sustain the outcome ... for the long term. I try and seek feedback from our stakeholders, our staff and administrators, and information from the public in hopes of making an informed decision.”
Hubert: “My decisions as a board member will be made based on what is best for the students, families and taxpayers of the district.”
Johns: “My role as a school board member has several different responsibilities. One, I will be focused on the district’s vision. Two, I will be fiscally accountable and responsible. Three, I will put students first. Four, I will make decisions with an open mind.
“The role of the entire board also has several different key responsibilities. One, we should set policy and continue to improve on a set of cohesive guidelines that matches the district’s vision. Two, we should supervise the superintendent and establish a strong working relationship with the position. ... Three, we should be transparent; communication to the public is key.”
Martin: “Decision-making is always guided by considering all sides of an issue and balancing what’s best for students and the interests of the community.”
Shaw: “My decision-making process shall be guided by voters and what I feel is best for the school district.”
Williams: “I believe I am my own person and that I don’t make decisions based on what everyone else is doing. I believe in listening to all points being presented and making a well-informed decision.”