The CNMI State Board of Education has voted to put off a planned lawsuit against the CNMI government on how much the Public School System is entitled to as its share of the government’s annual budget.
In a 4-1 vote during last Wednesday’s meeting at the BOE conference room on Capital Hill, the board decided to hold off on bringing to court the issue of what general revenue is and what constitutes the 25 percent of the budget that PSS is entitled to get under the CNMI Constitution.
Board chair MaryLou S. Ada, vice chair Janice A. Tenorio, secretary/treasurer Herman M. Atalig, and member Herman T. Guerrero voted yes, while Tinian representative Florine M. Hofschneider voted no.
Before the vote, BOE legal counsel Tiberius Mocanu outlined two options for the board: submitting a certified question to the court or filing a lawsuit. In both cases, it is to ask the court to clarify the provisions of the law that will guide future administrations in appropriating the annual budget for PSS.
“The idea is to have a decision from the Supreme Court that resolves the issue so that future governors and political parties in power don’t have any wiggle room on what exactly this constitutional amendment mean and what PSS is allowed to have,” said Mocanu. “The goal is not to sue the government because we’re going to get some money. The goal is to sue the government to force them to a certified question, so the Supreme Court can decide what’s exactly is going on.”
He added: “What we’re trying to do is not forcing anybody’s hand or we’re not asking for a specific amount of money. What we’re doing is to get them at the table so that we’re in front of the Supreme Court and they decide.”
The board has also decided to give House Speaker Ralph S. Demapan (R-Saipan) time to discuss the issue whether the Legislature would have a joint resolution to resolve the matter and at the same time meet with their legal counsel.
Mocanu, however, reminded the board that litigation is a tedious process. “We file, we serve, they reply. We’re in front of a judge, they might file a motion to dismiss. We have to argue the motion. If we survive it—I think we would—let’s go to the Supreme Court, it will take three to four months before we might get a sentence.”
Hofschneider, who voted no, said the board has already decided and should file the certified question right away. “We should proceed to do that. The governor can’t dictate to the board when to take action. We need to do this.”
“It is a political ploy, no matter how you slice it. We’ve been at this so we could avoid it close to the election,” added Hofschneider.
Ada said that during her last conversation with Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, he said the government would honor what it owes PSS. “My last discussion with the governor, they are willing to give us $3.75 million in July on the next supplemental appropriation.”
She added that the BOE just needs answers on the questions of what is general revenue and what’s the proper earmark for the educational system in the annual budget.
Tenorio said the administration should not be blamed but Torres and the Legislature know that PSS has every right to the money. “But we should also be reminded that the entire CNMI is going through a roller coaster with regards with the economic development and CW1 workforce issues.”
“Hotels and companies are not certain of what’s going to happen, whether they would go on or not. I don’t think they would let us be in the red. The governor and the Legislature are not saying that ‘we’re not going to give you the money,’” said Tenorio.
Atalig said that holding off until July is in the best interest of the BOE and would also benefit PSS. “The governor is the father of our islands and he has to do all this balancing act. We need to give and take sometimes.”
“The governor and Legislature know they owe us money. But it just needs some time.”
Guerrero, for his part, said that Demapan is serious in settling the issue but it is also the board’s responsibility to move ahead with their plans for the best interest of the students. “It is not a question of who is right or who is wrong, but the question of resolving the issue regarding appropriations.”
“The Legislature is entertaining the fiscal year 2019 budget, but we’re elected to protect the interest of our students. As such, it is our moral responsibility to move ahead…The fact is the administration has not kept up with what they owe us.”
“It is just a question to resolve, once and for all, what we are entitled to under the Constitution. So we can have a clear guidance from the court,” Guerrero said.