US Education Dept. restricts PR’s access to $400 million from CARES Act

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

As back-to-school season is about to begin and concerns are being raised as to how it will turn out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Department of Education is withholding from the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PRDE) some $400 million in education funds provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The federal agency cited concerns over how the territory has handled grants in the past and ordered the island government to hire a trustee to manage the money.

According to an article from Education Week, in mid-June, Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Frank Brogan told Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced and PRDE Secretary Eligio Hernández Pérez via letter that, out of the $400 million from the CARES Act, the department will only release $7.3 million to the island for a 60-day budget period after the official grant award and once the local government hires a third-party agent to handle the funds.

Meanwhile, the rest of the grant money will remain out of the PRDE’s control during that time.

“The [U.S.] department cannot ignore the longstanding challenges that have been associated with Puerto Rico and the PRDE’s fiscal management of federal funds and the impact this has on effective Federal education program implementation,” Brogan said in the June 16 letter to the governor and education secretary.

The challenges that Brogan said he could not ignore were that Puerto Rico had 307,282 students enrolled in its public school system, which makes the island one of the 10 U.S. districts with the largest student enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. However, the 2017 hurricanes, this past winter’s earthquakes and the current COVID-19 pandemic are now causing long-term problems for both students and teachers on the island.

“Just last year, the U.S. Department of Education’s inspector general found a lack of oversight over disaster aid provided by the federal government to Puerto Rico following Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017,” said the Education Week article. “And the island’s former Secretary of Education Julia Keleher was arrested last year on charges of steering contracts to friends during her tenure; she was arrested a second time earlier this year, again for crimes allegedly committed during her time in office.”

Meanwhile, Education Week said that, according to Brogan’s letter, the entirety of the Puerto Rico government’s CARES Act funds to assist both K-12 and higher education institutions, which totals $47.8 million, will also be put under the control of a trustee. The article also stated that Brogan was told by island government officials that the funds are meant to be used for K-12 education; meanwhile, Puerto Rico will have to document how it plans to use the CARES relief and prepare cost estimates during the two-month period.

Top US House lawmakers criticize decision to withhold Puerto Rico’s CARES K-12 relief U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), along with Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who handles Puerto Rico’s oversight, wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos criticizing the delayed distribution of emergency grant aid to the island as it has only received 1.5 percent of the emergency funds.

“Puerto Rico has experienced program implementation challenges in the past. In 1998, Puerto Rico’s Single Audit Act audit had more than 140 findings,” the congressmen said in their letter. “However, Puerto Rico has consistently worked to address those issues and its most recent audit only contained 24 findings, most of which did not relate to elementary and secondary education. Despite these improvements, the Department has erected bureaucratic hurdles for the release of this emergency grant aid.”

In the letter, the representatives suggested that the entity use different oversight requirements so the funds would be released to the island more promptly. Meanwhile, they also recognized that, back in 2017, as hurricanes Irma and Maria caused $100 billion in damages and destroyed core parts of the island’s education infrastructure, the PRDE appropriated $589 million from the Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations program and provided internal controls and monitoring plans that were successfully implemented and approved by the federal department.

“While ensuring recipients have sufficient internal controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse is paramount to the successful implementation of any program, delayed funding distribution has undermined the core purpose of this program,” their letter said. “To address these competing ends the Department should work collaboratively with all recipients to ensure rapid disbursement.”

Scott and Grijalva said in the letter that based on the timeline worked out by the federal department and the island government, Puerto Rico won’t have full access to its CARES education aid until Aug. 15, shortly after the island’s academic year starts for public schools. Meanwhile, the lawmakers requested that the U.S. Department of Education release all documents that detailed the requirements the PRDE must comply with in order to receive the complete CARES relief funds.

The Star requested, through different means, comments from Hernández Pérez, the PRDE secretary, regarding the restrictions imposed on the CARES relief aid and how the department’s back-to-school plan is coming along. The agency’s press secretary replied that the plan was in its final phase, but department officials were too busy Tuesday to accommodate the Star’s requests.