• The Star Staff

Education chief vows to be ‘respectful’ with legislative determination on WIPR’s future

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

With the future of the Puerto Rico Corporation for Public Broadcasting (known as WIPR by its Federal Communications Commission call sign) remaining unclear as both House Bill 2524 and Senate Bill 1640 have yet to be evaluated in the island Legislature’s sixth special session -- a process that could lead to WIPR becoming a non-profit corporation -- Education (DE) Secretary Eligio Hernández told the Star on Monday that in order to return WIPR to the DE, something WIPR workers are calling for, a new bill must be filed. However, he said twice that he will “be respectful with any bill established by the legislative branch and welcomed by the executive branch.”

Even though WIPR employees and the Actors Association said Sunday that it is possible for the DE to keep the public corporation running as its annual operating cost rounds up to $5 million, which they said can be easily provided from the DE’s $4 billion annual budget instead of privatizing the entity, Hernández said otherwise, pointing out that the numbers were incorrect. He said the department’s annual budget is $3.6 billion, but around $1.53 billion is reserved for the retirement system.

“Of all the budget that was allocated at DE, there’s a billion [dollars] that we can’t even see, that we can’t manage that way as it is [allocated] for the retirees. The agency can’t touch that money,” he said. “It’s a bit technical, but it’s always worth bringing up because they always tell us that our budget is around $3 billion, and I say, ‘I wish I could manage those $3 billion.’ But the answer is no, it gets reduced down to 30 percent due to pensions, which leads us to a tight budget.”

As for WIPR receiving funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to cover operating costs after providing educational services to the DE, Hernández said the allocation of such funds “has to be related to activities involved with COVID-19.” The DE secretary added that the department’s education plan under the CARES Act contemplated $6 million for televised education.

“DE’s funds are consigned to the DE for our current projects. We don’t have funds in an account waiting to be decided where they will be used,” Hernández said. “Nonetheless, DE is very aware of the outreach that tele-education has not only in Puerto Rico but also the world. We, with this project, guarantee an additional tool for Puerto Rican families, but the internal issue on operation and management at WIPR corresponds to them, their board, and the legislative power that is capable of establishing their own vision and, obviously, we live in a republican-type democratic country, where there is the separation of powers; there are other managers who would make those decisions.”

As for the DE collaborating with WIPR on the summer class television program “En Casa Aprendo,” Hernández said it “has become [a matter] of considerable relevance due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” After the success and outreach of the program, he said, there are similar projects coming in the near future focused on teaching sign language on all levels, promoting social and emotional support toward students and parents, and tutoring in challenging courses such as math.

When the Star asked if “En Casa Aprendo” and other such projects were not at risk due to WIPR’s possible privatization, Hernández responded, “No, incidental matters involving administrative procedures that are ongoing at WIPR are directly addressed by the [public] corporation; the DE has no say in these matters.”

“However, both entities signed an agreement, which is focused on purchasing production time and broadcasting all programs to the audience,” the Education chief said. “Written agreements are honored. We don’t anticipate any problems.”