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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Nonprofit: Abandoned schools put communities at risk

Luis Gallardo Rivera, executive director of the Center for the Reconstruction of Habitat

By The Star Staff

Center for the Reconstruction of Habitat Executive Director Luis Gallardo Rivera said Thursday that the government’s management protocol for the disposal of closed and abandoned schools has been ineffective and today is a health and safety problem for the communities that surround those buildings.

“It’s worrisome, because someone at some point mistakenly multiplied the number of closed schools by the millions that the government was supposed to collect in the midst of the fiscal crisis and in the end there were neither savings nor collections,” Gallardo Rivera said in a written statement. “Currently, the priority when it comes to having a school is to sell it at the highest possible price, which is why the vast majority are still in a state of abandonment.”

Gallardo Rivera was emphatic in saying that the responsibility for the current state of the schools does not lie with the Education Department, but with the Committee for the Evaluation and Disposition of Real Estate (CEDBI by its Spanish initials), which is composed of the heads of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority, Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and Office of Management and Budget.

The speed and efficiency of the committee has improved over the past few years, but they are still tied to a public policy that emphasizes revenue maximization, Gallardo Rivera noted. Although Article 5.07 of Law No. 26-2017, known as the Law for Compliance with the Fiscal Plan, indicates that “fair market value” will be used as a basis when disposing of a property, it also says that the executive branch will “always safeguard the public interest and welfare.” In addition, Article 13(d) of the CEDBI regulations states that a price equal to the fair market value will not be required as an indispensable condition for the approval of a direct sale, “but in practice priority is given to the financial issue and not to matters of importance such as public safety and quality of life,” he said.

Gallardo Rivera stressed that Senate Bill 1084 is currently under consideration by the House of Representatives, which seeks to prioritize activities such as affordable housing and community uses when evaluating the repurposing of a school. In addition, the bill requires the identification of a new use before closing future schools.

“I can give you as an example the Horace Mann school in Cataño, where we submitted a formal request in 2022 to use it as an office, in addition to a service center. However, the CEDBI decided to sell the school by auction with a minimum bid of $500,000,” Gallardo Rivera said. “The problem is that community and nonprofit groups like ours will never be able to compete with big developers or millionaire investors. After a request for access to information and an examination of the files, the CEDBI had to discard the auction twice due to a lack of eligible bidders. To this day, the school is in total abandonment and we know very well that if you leave a school abandoned for years, it lends itself to vandalism, accumulation of debris and health problems for the community.”

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