As Yogi Berra, the immortalized baseball player, would have said, “it’s déjà vu all over again” during a recent public hearing on the current state of Puerto Rico’s Department of Education.
Budget management woes in handling an estimated $4 billion budget in federal and commonwealth funds. Low academic achievement by students. Problems with school infrastructure.
If one were to look at newspaper archives from 20 years ago, these issues would top the list of the education department’s woes even then. Fast forward to today and it seems very little has changed at the agency.
Due to changing demographics leading to fewer children in Puerto Rico, the department has been forced to close 34 percent of its schools, going from 1,295 to 857 at the last count. Education’s fiscal plan, as certified by the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) requires that the agency also cut administrative costs by 34 percent.
However, during the FOMB hearing, the Oversight Board’s Executive Director Natalie Jaresko pointed out that there has not been a corresponding increase in administrative costs. Based on the financial numbers that the agency submitted, there has been a 14 percent decrease in administrative costs, she pointed out.
Secretary of Education Eligio Hernández said the issue could be one of definition, as administrative staff often perform teaching duties, as is the case with special education staff.
“I am talking about strictly administrative staff, janitors, school cafeteria workers,” Jaresko replied. “When the savings are not coming from administration, you are forcing yourself to cut from teachers and students. This is about priorities.”
FOMB members were also surprised that Education does not have a specific financial department to oversee the proper administration of funds. “You would never imagine that a company, a private company that earns $4 billion in revenue, would not have a finance department to figure out why it took more than two years to shut off the electricity in a school,” Jaresko said.
To that end, it was pointed out that the federal government has frozen $680 million in funds until a “third-party fiduciary agent” has been identified. Education has requested proposals and the winning firm should be announced in February 2020, Hernández said. He added that the agency is also hiring personnel for its internal audit office in order to help with the agency’s management.
The federal funds were frozen due to concerns about the agency’s fiscal management and corruption allegations, including the arrest of former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher on charges that she steered millions of dollars in federal fund contracts to “unqualified and politically connected organizations.” Keleher has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial in May 2020.
Other issues that came out during the hearing were that the majority of public school students failed to pass proficiency exams in Spanish, math, English and science. Results from the 2018-2019 academic year show that 45.1 percent of students were “proficient” in Spanish, their native language; followed by 30.1 percent in math, 38.9 percent in English and 47.1 percent in science.
Meanwhile, more than two years after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, 22 schools remain closed because of the damage sustained. Education officials told the Oversight Board that they were still waiting for FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds to repair these schools.