AMIDST DRASTIC AUSTERITY MEASURES
Hit hard by austerity measures necessitated by a suddenly contracting economy, administrators, teachers, and other staff of the Public School System aired their frustration and disappointment yesterday before the House of Representatives during a jam-packed session on Capital Hill. They spoke about the tattered financial state of PSS and the crisis facing its personnel.
CNMI State Board of Education member Andrew Orsini said PSS is going through tremendous financial hardship right now. “We won’t be able to function normally. I just want everyone to know…that education [remains] our priority,”[which is] why I’m here is for the almost 11,000 students that we have. If we continue to have this situation, we might be looking at shutting down the schools.”
MaryLou Ada, who is a former BOE chairwoman and a current member, said that they have cut PSS’ budget to the bone. “We don’t know where else to cut. In 2018, the CNMI government still owes PSS $7.9 million. In 2019, our budget was cut by 50 percent. In January, we met with the governor [Ralph DLG Torres], who told us that the budget was cut by $4 million. Three months later, it was cut by $7 million.”
“…We can’t operate schools like this,” she said.
Ada pointed out that more than 10,000 children and 1,052 employees report to PSS every morning and it is her duty as a board member to make sure that all schools are open in a safe and orderly fashion, and the quality of education all these children are getting is what is expected today in the 21st century.
PSS associate commissioner for Student Support Services Yvonne Pangelinan said she stands with the teachers and the hundreds of their employees that must not be forgotten in this dilemma.
“I have worked for [PSS] for over two and a half decades and, yes, today it is possible to use my salary to divert from the conversation that matters, but it wasn’t so 26 years ago when I signed my first contract for $11,000, so I can empathize with everyone who is looking to get some answers,” said Pangelinan.
“After 26 years I am appalled that we still have to justify the value of education in the CNMI. I am appalled that we have not yet grasped the fact that without a robust educational system, there can be no economic prosperity. I am here because I take my leadership seriously even when it is in question.”
Pangelinan is frustrated over the seeming lack of urgency, “the inaction and the disregard for transparency that has caused so much discord within our PSS family.
“What frustrates me is that it has taken this to spur our government to action. The waters have been so muddied that, instead of working together, we are now bumping into each other, hoping to find a way out [and] not considering who gets hurt in the process.”
Phyllis Ain, who is a teacher, said the Legislature has allocated $42.8 million to PSS for fiscal year 2019 but the Office of the Governor has failed to remit this amount—in violation of Article XV, Section 1 (e) of the CNMI Constitution.
“The governor has steadily decreased remittances to PSS to a point where PSS cannot pay teacher salaries and fulfill its obligations to its administrative staff, third party service providers, and vendors. As of June 6, 2019, of the $35.3 million due to PSS after budget reductions, PSS has received only $17.9 million, which is 51 percent of the appropriations passed by the Legislature. This deficit only increases as time passes.
“Please consider: during fiscal year 2019 and prior to the revised budgetary appropriations, the Office of the Governor failed to transmit at least three payroll remittances in the amount of $7 million. What happened to these funds? The Legislature appropriated the $7 million for [PSS], but this amount was never transmitted. The governor’s action calls for oversight by the Legislature to determine where these funds were diverted.”
Former education commissioner Rita Sablan said it was the first time that she heard the news of the possibility of shutting down schools, which she described as “a disgrace to the children of the CNMI.”
“Here is a little scenario for all of us: in less than two weeks, we have over 200 college graduates that will be potentially unemployed. We have over 600 high school graduates whose post-high school plans will now have to be drastically changed because the super economy met its death immediately after 2018,” she said
“So why are we here? You have been so quiet and we want to hear from you. We want action from this legislative body. We are here because we know that you have the capability to address our concern, you have the legislative function to appropriate the annual budget, and you have the authority to conduct oversight hearings and to subpoena individuals, and conduct investigations,” she added.