Overcrowding, multi-aged classes, double sessions, and children and teachers bathed in sweat. This is the new reality for all public schools in the Commonwealth, at least until the end of this school year, following revelation Friday that the system failed to restore 45 FTEs for teachers who were supposed to ease-even for just a bit-the situation of most classes on three islands.
Education Commissioner Rita A. Sablan, Ed.D, said the “meager appropriation” provided by the 17th Legislature this school year means that an important program will also be suspended-the English Language program-which is for students that use English as a second language.
PSS was allocated just $30 million under the new budget law. A big bulk of that-$26 million-will go to personnel cost, $3 million is reserved for water and power, and $1 million is intended to be used for all schools' operation.
PSS has nearly 11,000 students, 19 campuses, and 10 Head Start centers in the Commonwealth.
The new budget is $3 million short of what PSS asked for and was “promised” by lawmakers during budget hearings and meetings.
“Because we're not able to restore back any of the posts that we need to put us back into regular schedule, classes are still going to have large ratios of 33:1; 36:1; and 55:1. I also met with our federal program and instructional staff and I told them that we have to sacrifice one program-our English Language program-because it would not be feasible to implement it this school year,” Sablan said.
She said the program suspension would enable Kagman Elementary School to convert the FTEs to regular classes to eliminate double sessions among its fifth graders. Starting tomorrow, Oct. 9, KagES will no longer conduct double sessions, thanks to the federal funds that pay for the badly needed three FTEs for the school.
Classes on Tinian and kindergarten classes in many schools will remain in double sessions due to the non-restoration of 45 FTEs for teachers, according to Sablan.
The $3 million additional funds PSS was asking for was intended to be used to hire more teachers to lessen class ratios to 25 to 26 students per class.
Sablan, who appeared several times in budget hearings and conference committee assemblies at the Legislature and provided testimonies even at the 11th hour of the budget hearing process, expressed deep disappointment with the lawmakers.
She specifically cited four lawmakers, whom she said failed to fulfill their “promise to help” public schools. Sablan was referring to House Speaker Eli Cabrera, vice speaker Felicidad Ogumoro, and Sens. Jude Hofschneider and Jovita Taimanao-who all voted “no” in the budget conference committee to provide PSS the $33 million it was asking for.
“I am very, very disappointed that these lawmakers voted against PSS from receiving $33 million. I don't know what happened. Sen. Taimanao said publicly to me that 'we will work very hard to give you $33 million.' What happened and what changed her mind when she was in that conference committee? I need to understand where the priorities are. The Senate came out publicly announcing the $33 million.and they turned around and they said “no”? How could they do this to the children of this Commonwealth? They [four lawmakers] should have actually come back and asked us if we can compromise on something.but to turn around and say they're not voting for it.that's nonsense!” a visibly upset Sablan told Saipan Tribune.
“I would like to invite the speaker, the vice speaker and the others to come and feel the pain of our students and teachers. They can volunteer to teach classes perhaps at MHS and experience teaching 55 students,” she added.
The commissioner recalled that she was even asked by these lawmakers in the conference committee to increase the salaries of bus drivers and administrative staffers who have not gotten any salary increase for many years.
“With $30 million, now they expect us to provide these salary adjustments?” she asked.
The $30 million for PSS is almost the same amount as federal grants the system receives every year, which is a little over $30 million. Sablan emphasized, however, that federal grants are designed to supplement educational needs, not entirely fund it. The education of children, she said, is the responsibility of the local government, which seems to show less care for schoolchildren.
“In the future, should the government revenue be projected to increase, I would like to ask them: Please remember the children in this Commonwealth. Kids are struggling. This is not about PSS as an organization but it's about the children that are not given that support. They need classrooms that are conducive to learning. That's all I am asking from them,” said the commissioner.
Because of overcrowding in classrooms, Sablan is worried of the negative impact it may have on
student outcomes. Studies and researches show that smaller class sizes have better chances of getting higher results in standardized tests than overcrowded classes.
“No matter how beautiful the classroom is, if you have 33 or 55 students in the classroom.it's not going to be very manageable. We are grateful to our teachers for doing their best to prepare and deliver the instructions,” said Sablan, adding that it breaks her heart when she sees students and teachers sweating even in the early morning of classes because they want to conserve energy.