Education Dept. has not finalized contract for federal monitor
By The Star Staff
Ten months after the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) hired the firm Alvarez & Marsal to serve as monitor of the agency’s federal funds as required by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), the PRDE said Thursday that it is far from closing the deal with a contract.
The contract is a requirement put on the agency by federal officials to stop it from losing $650 million this year. Federal education officials in June 2019 ordered the PRDE to hire a middleman for its federal funding after finding irregularities in its use of federal funds for educational programs. The PRDE hired Alvarez & Marsal in February but on Thursday officials said they have not completed the contract.
Federal Education Affairs Coordinator Francisco Martínez said Alvarez & Marsal objects to the inclusion in the contract of terms required of all contracts by local laws. Martínez said the terms had to be included in the contract because the PRDE does not want to face the problems that Guam had with Alvarez & Marsal when it hired the firm as a federal monitor for its federal education funds.
Martínez declined to provide details of the discrepancies in the negotiations for a contract to avoid putting the contract at risk.
Guam’s education department had a hard time getting rid of the company, which for 10 years collected $3 million a year for the U.S. Pacific island territory to have access to $50 million in funds, Martínez said.
“We don’t want the same thing to happen to us,” Martínez said Thursday during the fourth day of government transition committee hearings.
Despite the dispute, Martínez and island Education Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez pointed out that the agency is using an unidentified amount of unused federal funds from 2018 to 2020.
Hernández Pérez, meanwhile, gave an overview of the state of the PRDE.
He said the educational system has 858 public schools, distributed around the seven regional educational offices (OREs) between primary, secondary and other levels. The total PRDE workforce has decreased by 20 percent in the past four years, from 54,031 to 43,323 civil servants, who are distributed in the following categories and status: 75 trust positions, 36,341 regular positions, 5,422 temporary positions, 1,160 irregular positions and 325 part-time jobs.
As part of the PRDE’s academic effort, textbooks and instructional materials were purchased for all core subjects. In addition, literary novels and career technical (vocational) education textbooks will be obtained. The total investment of the initiative is $76 million in Restart funds.
Since March, classes have been held virtually. Through Microsoft Teams, live virtual workshops are being offered and support groups are being developed with program directors, teaching facilitators, and technology specialists located in each ORE. In turn, teachers provide academic support and offer their virtual classes. All of the 22,000 teachers, that is, 100 percent, have benefited from the initiative, the PRDE chief said.
Hernández Pérez said that in response to the earthquakes, remedial modules were acquired to provide teaching and learning, with an investment of $385,000 in Restart funds.
The head of the PRDE also recognized the importance of attending to students’ socio-emotional needs. The agency hired 857 psychologists with an investment of $30 million from a matching of 50 percent of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds and commonwealth funds. The hiring, for this year, of 857 psychologists is in process, with an investment of $52 million in commonwealth funds, Hernández Pérez said.
On the matter of rebuilding the schools after the destruction caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria and the earthquakes in January, the secretary emphasized that the obligation of funds authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for Category B repairs amounts to $356 million, which is obtained through reimbursement, and 10 percent in commonwealth matching funds.
The PRDE requested public assistance to repair the damages caused by tropical storms and hurricanes, Hernández Pérez said. Likewise, he said FEMA recently allocated $2.2 billion in permanent category (E, G) funds to restore the infrastructure of the entire system, taking into account current building codes, mitigating risks to natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and demographics, among other factors. The implementation of the recovery plan is projected for a period of 10 to 15 years, he said.
The earthquakes caused extensive damage to school buildings, mainly in the 14 municipalities that were declared disaster areas. As a result of the inspections conducted, a total of 53 sites were identified as unsuitable, or red, 253 sites as partially eligible, or yellow, and 551 sites as eligible, or green. FEMA approved the declaration of emergency for 157 school campuses in the 14 municipalities; however, FEMA has inspected only 72 schools, which has delayed the restoration process.