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Last updateWed, 18 Sep 2019 12am







    Tuesday, September 17, 2019-7:03:52P.M.






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Ada says BOE should tell government: Pay up or we close schools

BOARD of Education member MaryLou Ada on Thursday said the BOE should file a lawsuit against the CNMI government for not remitting to the Public School System 25 percent of the central government’s revenues as mandated by the local Constitution.

“I think we have to pursue it for the money that is due to us,” she added. “We will give them an ultimatum.”

The government owes PSS $7.9 million in the previous fiscal year and $8.5 million in the present fiscal year, she added.

“We will set a deadline. Pay up or we close schools. I think it is about time to do drastic measures. We cannot operate like this,” Ada said.

But in an interview, BOE Chairwoman Janice Tenorio said: “No, I will not stand with her [Ada] and support her plan because, and let me repeat again, I have been engaged in active discussions with the secretary of Finance, the governor, the lt. governor and the Legislature in ensuring that the money owed to PSS will be paid out once the government’s revenue collection is sufficient enough.”

Tenorio said the central government “has been transferring money for PSS payroll and that’s why we don’t have payless paydays, and we haven’t closed our schools.”

Ada said the money that PSS is getting from the government is for payroll only. “There’s no money to pay for the gas for school buses, to buy books, for the construction of schools and no money to build new classrooms for Hopwood Middle School. We are severely underfunded. We cannot even pay electricity. We are behind $1 million [in our utility payments],” she added.

Ada asked her fellow board members “to step up and give the government an ultimatum: if they don’t pay, let’s close schools; let’s see how they would react.”

BOE Vice Chairman Herman Atalig agreed with Ada, saying the government is to blame for the school system’s financial crisis.

“That predicament is not a result of PSS mismanagement, but our government’s failure to provide the needed funding to effectively and efficiently upgrade our schools,” he added.

Both Ada and Atalig were responding to the statements made by Rep. Tina Sablan and House Minority Leader Edwin Propst during the public-comment portion of the BOE meeting.

Propst said the new fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1, 2019, will not bring relief to PSS.

He said PSS took the “biggest hit” when the government imposed budget cuts due to the revenue shortfall. “PSS’ [budget cut] was probably above 30 percent,” he added as he challenged the BOE to “stand up for students, teachers and schools.”

Rep. Tina Sablan wants to know why BOE members are not “fighting” for PSS.

Members of the Board of Education meet with Public School System officials on Thursday.  Photo by Lori Lyn C. LirioMembers of the Board of Education meet with Public School System officials on Thursday. Photo by Lori Lyn C. Lirio

“When talented, dedicated professionals [of PSS] who are loved and respected by their colleagues and the people they serve step down from any organization, this is a red flag — something is very wrong. It’s a signal that reflects poor leadership. In this case, that leadership is the Board of Education and the Legislature,” she said.

“The question I hear is why are you not fighting? The perception is that the board is covering the government that is cheating our school system and violating the law,” she added.

Sablan noted that the topics on BOE’s meeting agenda included austerity measures, budget cuts, salary cuts and a plan for a reduction in force. “But why are you not directly and aggressively going after what is legally, constitutionally and morally owed to PSS?” she asked.

On Oct. 1, the austerity measures will be lifted for the central government, she said. “But PSS will remain underfunded and austerity will continue for your 1,000 plus employees and 10,000 students. PSS will begin the fiscal year with a deficit, and our schools will go on languishing in disrepair.”

She added, “Board members, you can do more. When will you be outraged enough to stop cutting and start fighting? How much further are you willing to cut? How many teachers and administrators are you willing to lose? How many students are you willing to compromise?”

BOE member Philip Mendiola-Long, who attended the board meeting through teleconference, said CNMI leaders should “slow down and start thinking about the implications of making threats to close schools.”

“I think,” he said, “our first focus should be the kids and how we can continue providing services to them the best that we can with the resources we have…. But to break things down and say we are going to go to war — we need to focus [first] on who is going to be harmed by that war.”

Mendiola-Long said giving an ultimatum and threatening to close down schools “is the wrong pathway because it will be a huge disservice to the teachers, the kids and to the entire system.”

He said filing a lawsuit is also moot because there is no language in the Constitution that requires the general fund to pay PSS on certain days. “It just says that they are going to give us 25 percent of the revenue.”

He said he has asked the Legislature to clarify when those payments are due. “I had not seen any legislation introduced so we can get clarification on whether 25 percent means the day of receipt, or does it mean the end of the fiscal year?”

He asked his BOE colleagues to evaluate the situation “with the intent of focusing on the kids and teachers.”

“If we close the schools that means our teachers won’t get paid. That means our vendors won’t get paid. That means the kids won’t get an education,” Mendiola-Long said.

He encouraged the BOE members to work with the secretary of Finance and the Legislature.

“To be honest,” he noted, “the Legislature had the ability to appropriate the whole $15 million [in Saipan casino fee payment] for PSS but they did not. We should not be picking up rocks and throwing them at each other. We should instead embrace our culture and sit down and talk about it and not be afraid of an opposing opinion — hear them out and then work through that opinion, so we can find common ground.”