Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A conversation with Lucy Blanco-Maratita, MV 29

By Jeffrey C. Turbitt

I opened my Monday morning paper this week and saw the headline: "BOE approves PSS furloughs, shutdown," and small vapors of steam started coming out of my ears. I decided to do a little of my own investigating before getting completely upset, and I found out that the school system does indeed have a severe financial problem on its hands. However, no concrete decisions have been made yet. A set of unpleasant choices exists should members of the central government continue their longtime policy of supporting education during the campaigns and then giving it short shrift upon being elected.

The fact that the most basic services of government such as energy, public health and education are left to flounder, while our elected officials remain defiant and refuse to give up or even reduce perks of office like government paid vehicles, government paid cell phones and a large discretionary budget, simply boggles my mind. I peppered CNMI Board of Education Chair Lucy Blanco-Maratita with several questions about PSS’ financial predicament, and she explained the choices the board has and their consequences, as well as ways to avoid those problems.

JCT: According to a conversation I had with your board colleague Galvin Deleon Guerrero, as things currently stand, PSS is looking at a projected deficit this fiscal year of $3.3 million largely due to greater utilities costs and $2 million that was "borrowed" from PSS in Fiscal Year 2006, which has not been returned to PSS. What are the options the board is considering to deal with this problem?

LBM: The first option, of course, is to secure a budget for FY'08 from the legislature that puts us over the current continuing resolution budget of $35.48 or at least get the $2M from the administration returned to PSS --- and that still will not be enough to meet our $50M budget to operate our schools. The second option will be to close our schools completely from mid-June and delay the opening until September 1st. This will reduce our utilities and we can then use the funds for operations. A third option that we may be forced to consider is furlough of employees for one month. This is not something that we want to do because we don't want the ill effects that would have on our student achievement gains and the livelihood of our staff. But, if we do not have the funds to last until the end of the fiscal year, we may be forced to consider it.

JCT: What impact will those options have on students and teachers if implemented?

LBM: If you are talking about furlough, we stand to lose our teachers and staff as they may decide to leave and we will definitely experience a slippage of the gains we have made with our student achievements.

JCT: My understanding is that these are just options right now and no course of action has been definitively decided upon by the board. Is that correct?

LBM: Yes, those are just considerations that were being discussed at the time the reporter was there. The reporter left before the end of the discussion in which the board decided to send a message to the legislature to pass a piecemeal budget because we may be forced to consider such drastic measures.

JCT: I also understand you will be sending a letter detailing these possibilities to the legislature. The underfunding of education in the CNMI can't be news to them. What have they communicated back to the board of late about these issues?

LBM: They have told us they are supportive of education, but we need to see more --- perhaps more funding. I think they (legislature, governor) have to just put their foot down and make a policy call that their focus is truly on education and fund it as the schools see as adequate.

JCT: It seems like the BOE has had a number of financial issues in the past, and some people will view this as "crying wolf" or gamesmanship with the legislature and the executive branch. How are things different this time?

LBM: I don't believe in threats, "crying wolf", etc. I believe in laying it all out for everyone to see and make informed decisions. We also need to plan ahead and try to foresee anticipated consequences so that we can plan and deal with those consequences before they happen. This is why it's important for the legislature and governor to understand what we see facing us so they can help us avert those unwanted consequences.

JCT: What can parents, teachers and students do to help the board manage this crisis?

LBM: Students: Continue to focus on your studies; let the adults deal with these issues. The job of our students is to learn what they can so they can be prepared for the futureTeachers: Continue teaching our students effectively and do your part in helping our system conserve energy so those funds will be available for your classroom rather than for CUC, albeit we do need utilities. If you have the opportunity to share information with our elected leaders, by all means please take the opportunity to share our need for adequate funding every day, for repairs of our schools, etc., but the best thing you can do is to continue to teach our children well with the dedication and commitment that you all have. Let us know how we can further support you in doing your job well.Parents: Continue to be involved with your children's education, communicate often with your child's teacher so that a strong partnership is forged between home and school. We can work together to encourage our elected leaders to truly make education a priority for funding and support. But the best help you can give is to be involved in your children's education, to help us meet their needs.

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