Mayors face bureaucratic obstacles if they want to take over the restoration of public schools
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The Star
Education (DE by its Spanish initials) Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés met with Puerto Rico Mayors Association on Monday, where he heard the concerns of Popular Democratic Party mayors about the public schools with serious infrastructure problems in their towns and agreed that allocating the funds and starting to fix the problem is going to take time.
“The start of classes will not be with the infrastructure we want,” Ramos Parés told the mayors. “We are asking the directors for minimum conditions for the start of classes so that maintenance work gets done during the semester.”
Early in the day, the Puerto Rico Teachers Association said 40% of public schools don’t meet the criteria to receive students this year. Ramos Parés denied those allegations, stating that “most schools are ready.”
“It’s a historical problem. … The most deteriorated buildings are those under the Public Buildings Authority [AEP by its Spanish initials],” the Education chief said. “We have to rethink the formula to operate. This dialogue should lead us to better management. Not now, but for next year.”
The biggest hurdle is getting the DE to reallocate the disbursement of federal money from the AEP to the municipalities. The mayors insist that they have the personnel and resources -- and the inside knowledge directly from teachers, students and communities -- about what needs to be fixed, and that they can do a better job.
Ramos Parés acknowledged that even though the DE pays $76 million in rent to the AEP, the public schools under the latter agency’s jurisdiction are the most affected.
Mayors Association President Luis Javier Hernández Ortiz pointed out that “there are schools that are practically in the same state since the passage of hurricanes Irma and Maria.”
“There was talk of a lack of funds in the past, but now the funds are there,” he said. “As long as the DE continues to wait for the AEP, the problem will not be resolved.”
Hernández Ortiz proposed that the DE “use as an example the collaborative agreements that the municipalities already have with the Department of Transportation and Public Works.”
“We have entered into some agreements where the municipalities do the necessary work, under contract, and the agency pays us for what we have worked on,” he said.
As part of the meeting, the mayors presented in writing the particular situations of the schools. Some are missing paint or have structural damage after the 2020 earthquakes that struck the southern part of the island, while others lack air conditioners, not to mention teachers, and even whole classrooms lack the adequate infrastructure to receive students.
“Once again, we point out the problem of government centralism,” said Josián Santiago, the mayor of Comerío. “You, as secretary of Education, imagine yourself working on the fundamental issues of the agency, where the municipalities are solving the problems of infrastructure, beautification and minor repairs, in a fair agreement for both parties. In Comerío we have nine schools, and we can serve them, but they [the Education Department] have to allocate resources to us.”
Ramos Parés acknowledged to the press that there’s no final plan to allocate resources to the municipalities, but he gave his word that he would work on it.
“We are going to expand the collaborative agreements in different areas,” he said.
Ramos Parés faces Senate committee.
During a public hearing on the situation of public schools heading into the start of the school year, the chairwoman of the Senate Education, Tourism and Culture Committee, Ada García Montes, announced that she would convene a roundtable with the DE, the Office of Maintenance and Improvement of Public Schools, the AEP and the Infrastructure Financing Authority to find a solution and define responsibilities.
“What has the country paralyzed regarding the progress, development, and management of funds linked to schools is the distribution of blame between [the departments],” the senator said.
Regarding the reconstruction plan for schools, Ramos Parés noted that “the Office of Infrastructure and Reconstruction has the information and we have Education personnel visiting the schools and the directors also report it.”
As for the recruitment and appointment of teachers, the secretary said the DE is busy assigning substitutes for last-minute resignations.
The Puerto Rico Teachers’ Association won a negotiation to give teachers a $1,000 salary increase, thus making returning to school more attractive to island educators. The DE is filling 290 positions, including social workers, school counselors and librarians.
Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón asked why the DE didn’t fix the schools during the pandemic. Ramos Parés pointed out that decisions made at that time aggravated the situation, and, when asked if responsibility had been claimed, the secretary answered no.
“It is a fact that the current situation of the school campuses is far from optimal and even more so from the ideal conditions that we would like to provide to all our students,” the Education chief said. “However, it is also a fact that in the last 15 months there has been substantial progress, although not yet sufficient, concerning the most pressing structural conditions. Currently, the DE, through its Office of Infrastructure and Reconstruction, is leading an unprecedented challenge regarding all aspects of the physical plant of practically all the buildings that make up the school system.”