• The Star Staff

Gov’t agencies handle issue of teachers’ base salary increase ‘like a hot potato’

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

With the Legislative Assembly looking to increase island teachers’ $1,750 average monthly salary and prevent future outmigrations from Puerto Rico due to underpaid job opportunities, the issue remains in limbo as neither of the governmental agencies called to depose on the subject Wednesday were able to take a stance, due to a lack of information, on House Bill (HB) 513, which seeks to establish the Special Base Salary for Teachers of the Public Education System Act.

During the first public hearing held before the House Education, Arts and Culture Committee on the bill authored by District 29 Rep. José Aníbal Díaz Collazo that would establish the teachers’ base starting salary in the public system at $2,700 per month, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Executive Director Juan Blanco Urrutia said in his presentation that before conducting legislative work on HB 513, the committee must conduct a feasibility study because the bill has “insufficient data that would enable us determine the fiscal impact of the proposal.”

“As part of a [hypothetical] mathematical example, we used an estimate of 1,500 teachers, and we established that a fiscal impact with teachers with a $2,700-per-month salary would be $16.2 million, in comparison to the actual $1,800 salary base,” Blanco Urrutia said.

Therefore, Blanco Urrutia requested that the Education Department hand over detailed information on “the number of teachers in the education system, what salary scale each teacher is on, and the approximate cost that implementation of the measure could represent.”

He also told the committee to be “extremely careful when evaluating measures that, although laudable, could negatively affect the General Fund and impact the certified Fiscal Plan.”

At the same time, the OMB executive director acknowledged that the teachers’ base salary issue “is of great relevance and represents a legitimate effort on the part of the Legislature, aimed at achieving salary justice for teachers in the education system.”

Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF by its Spanish initials) Legal Affairs Deputy Director Hecrian D. Martínez Martínez, representing AAFAF Executive Director Omar Marrero, said that, from a socioeconomic perspective, “the proposed bill is positive because it increases the income of these important civil servants.”

Martínez Martínez noted that the fiscal plan has allocated funds as “Section 13.3 establishes several investments to boost the operational improvements of the Department of Education.”

“Among the investments are approximately $285 million over five years for the compensation of the teaching class, including temporary teachers and school principals,” the AAFAF official said.

Martínez Martínez suggested “with great respect” that the committee should obtain both opinions from the OMB and the island Education Department “as both agencies are the most proper entities to conduct an effective analysis on the feasibility of HB 513.”

During the aforementioned presentations, District 10 Rep. Deborah Soto, who chairs the House Education, Arts and Culture Committee, said that Education Department Secretary-designate Elba Aponte Santos’ presentation does “recognize the need they [teachers] have, but it’s like a hot potato.”

When asked by Soto about Education requesting that a wage increase for teachers be included in the Fiscal Plan, Blanco Urrutia said during his presentation that in the budget request process for the next fiscal year, the Department of Education did not include a request for funds related to the base salary increase for teachers. For this reason, the OMB said that Education would have to cover the cost involved without the need for additional appropriations.

“Who’s to blame here? ‘We [the Education Department] are not to blame, let’s blame OMB or AAFAF,’” Soto said. “I consider that they [Education] are the entity responsible for the [teacher] roster, who have to know at first hand what they need, who are short on teachers and have no new teachers as many either do not study for it or [those who do] move out to another state to obtain better salaries.”

Meanwhile, in the Education Department presentation, signed by Legal Affairs and Public Policy Deputy Secretary Yaitza Maldonado Rivera, who arrived an hour after the public hearing began along with the agency’s Human Resources Deputy Secretary Iraida Abarca and Budget Deputy Director Sandra Clemente, Maldonado Rivera said “in order to achieve the most thorough and responsible analysis of the measure, we request that the comments of AAFAF and OMB be taken into consideration.”

The presentation also stated that the Education Department “agrees with the purposes of the measure.”

“However, the agency points out that the fiscal impact that would result from the approval of the bill would be around $250 million annually in order to honor the salary increase,” the Education Department statement said.

Puerto Rican Independence Party Rep. Denis Márquez Lebron said “it was alarming [for the Education Department] to file a presentation and not say that teachers deserve wage justice.”

“At the end of the day, everybody says ‘talk to somebody else’ because the issue of doing wage justice for the teachers of Puerto Rico has been going on for decades,” Márquez said. “And [while] it is all established about the fiscal crisis and all those issues, nobody assumes responsibility, and I have the obligation to tell them that.”

In response to Márquez asking for the Education Department’s stance on HB 513, Maldonado Rivera said “Aponte fully supports this bill.”

“Naturally, there are some fiscal components that we have to take into consideration. One of them is the Financial Oversight and Management Board, which is supervising all the department’s movements,” she said. “But, in conclusion, yes. Definitely, yes, it is endorsed.”

Márquez replied that neither the presentation filed by the Education Department on Monday afternoon, nor the amended document delivered during the public hearing, mentioned the designated Education secretary’s support for the bill.

“I want to know if I can throw these two documents in the trash,” Márquez said. “Neither in this document, nor in the amended one, is there a concrete and precise statement in favor of the bill.”

“Yes, throw them away,” Maldonado Rivera said.

Díaz Collazo, meanwhile, requested that Aponte Santos, who was absent from the public hearing, express her support for HB 513 on her own via a written statement.

“We are greatly concerned that the personnel sent to depose on her behalf give the impression that she is in favor of the bill, but however, that does not seem to be the case with the secretary, according to her public statements,” Díaz Collazo said. “What we are trying to obtain is a simple answer.”

Teachers organizations call for higher wage raise

During his presentation, Puerto Rico Teachers Association (AMPR by its Spanish initials) President Víctor Bonilla Sánchez pointed out that the current salary of $1,750 has not been increased for 13 years. He also said the AMPR’s position is that teachers’ base salary should range between $3,000 and $3,500 per month.

“While it is true that the intention of the measure is laudable, the base salary should be higher than $2,700,” Bonilla Sánchez said. “However, for the time being, it is a corrective action that we must endorse as part of a consensus plan to strengthen the teaching profession.”

However, Puerto Rico Teachers Federation President Mercedes Martínez Padilla wrote in her presentation that she was not in favor of HB 513, but recommended that Díaz Collazo “be a coauthor of HB 136, filed by Rep. Márquez.”

“Under such a bill, the teachers’ increased base salary would be $4,000 per month, in this way making for the real wage justice that we teachers aspire to and deserve,” Martínez Padilla said.

At press time, following the filing of two motions Wednesday in San Juan Superior Court, Bonilla Sánchez announced that the Department of Education on Wednesday finally sent the complete lists of temporary teachers who are owed salary increases from 2018 and 2019.

“It was important to receive, not only the lists with the names of the teachers, but also how much the Department of Education owes them,” Bonilla Sánchez said. “Today all those amounts were received, and the teacher who has doubts or wants to know how much their amount is should contact us.”

Bonilla Sánchez added that the Office of Member Services will be handling the claims from temporary teachers who are AMPR members and believe that they should receive the increase(s) for 2018 and/or 2019.

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