The CNMI Public School System is asking the Legislature to give it a budget that is more than the $20.6 million that the Office of the Governor is proposing to allocate them in fiscal year 2021, despite the amount being $3 million more than the original proposed allocation of $17.5 million.
PSS submitted a $37-million budget request before COVID-19, but slashed it to $20 million, given the economic shortfall the CNMI is facing due to the pandemic. However, at yesterday’s House Ways and Means Committee hearing, when Education chair Rep. Roman Benavente (R-Saipan) asked if $20 million will be enough for PSS to operate sustainably, Education Commissioner Dr. Alfred Ada flat out said “no,” adding that they would need at least $25 million.
“Right now, our classroom teachers have been placed under [64-hour] work week. To be honest about it, this equates to shortchanging our students,” he said.
PSS has already furloughed 710 of its teachers and staff. Ada said this has created low morale and stress, prompting some teachers to leave. “For the past three months, the pandemic has affected PSS and this will still be dramatically affecting the operations and costs for PSS in the coming months and years. …When we shortchange the teachers, we shortchange the students. And when we shortchange the students, we shortchange the future of the CNMI,” he said.
‘Do not underfund public education’
With a proposed budget of just $20.6 million, a large portion would go to personnel, leaving just $2.8 million for operation, according to PSS acting Finance director Kimo Rosario. This means PSS would need to reduce personnel cost by 47%, either by reducing the workforce by 47%, which he says is impractical, given that teachers are needed to carry out the mission to educate students; or cut salaries by the same amount, which will also make employees leave.
“We did crunch the numbers. We are fully cognizant that revenue collections are down, but $25 million…is the magic number that PSS needs in order to operate,” Rosario said.
With $25 million, $2.8 million will go to operations, leaving $22.2 million for personnel costs. PSS is anticipating to bring all teachers back on Aug. 1 to begin remote learning training.
Board of Education chair Janice Tenorio highlighted that the PSS management has been applying in the past several months for all kinds of grants. “We’re not just sitting down waiting for the money…coming from the central government and your appropriation, because we are all aware [of] the economy and the economic downfall. The businesses are down, restaurants and other places are closed, we know that collection of revenue is really down.”
According to Ada, even with the uncertainties brought about by the pandemic, PSS was still able to produce 753 high school graduates from Saipan, Tinian, and Rota who will now be moving on to various universities, or join the military or the workforce.
“Whatever the challenges are, our public school students are determined to learn. …It is critical that we invest more funds for public school students. It is critical that we sustain and give our absolute commitment and support,” Ada added.
Future of public education
With COVID-19, the stakes are much higher, according to Ada.
“School buildings are closed [on] Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. PSS is wrapping up technology on digital and virtual learning. There are, however, students who must continue to avail of face-to-face learning, among others, kindergarten to third grade students, our special [education] students who need tutoring via specialists using specialized equipment and technology in the classroom.”
Hybrid and remote learning are being researched, internet connectivity is being explored, reading packets are being distributed, and teaching instructions are being modified to suit distance learning, as well as to prepare parents to be involved in the education process.
PSS is also working on a plan that will include reconfiguring the classroom settings to reduce student ratio, implement social distancing, health monitoring, and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in all CNMI public school campuses, including the Central Office.
“We are in a changed environment. …It is without question, public education is one of the areas that got most disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. The public school system needs urgent financial support,” Ad said. “Let us all come together to help PSS rebuild and start to reopen under a different environment.”