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Education Chief Keleher Targets Federal Funds

By on January 20, 2017

SAN JUAN – The Department of Education is both one of the largest government entities in Puerto Rico and represents one of the largest chunks in the government budget. Yet for years, it has also been the target of a great amount of criticism. Designated to take the reigns of this complicated situation is Julia Keleher.

She is now at the head of a department with a current budget of $2.8 billion, with $1.08 billion of that budget coming from federal funds. At a moment when the island is suffering from a deep fiscal and economic crisis and after years of complaints that Puerto Rico was losing federal funds, Keleher has mentioned as one of her priorities the strengthening of the agency’s Federal Affairs office. The ultimate goal is to be able to assess the programs that are running and at what capacity, and find a better way to manage resources so programs can run on time and in compliance with federal regulations.

Julia Keleher, secreteray-designate of Puerto Rico's Education Department

Julia Keleher, secreteray-designate of Puerto Rico’s Education Department

“We’re working on strengthening the office of federal affairs. We’re working to make sure everything is happening on time; there has been a payment process slowdown. We’re also working on different ways of pooling resources…so I don’t have one person for every project, but I have a group. We’re trying to get a handle on all these [issues], invoices, RFPs [requests for proposals], series of contracts and reports, coming through one source. Some of the funds have been divided or shared in other offices, like vocational funds and Perkins [technical education], so I need a link with one person so I can say, ‘where are we with federal funds?’ I don’t need half the answer or 66% of the answer. I need the entire answer. When you start to channel that information that way, it makes it a lot easier to manage,” Keleher said in a sit-down interview with Caribbean Business.

The designated Education chief explained that this new focus would allow the department to be able to better capitalize on the federal funds available and could lead to the local government being eligible for non-census-based funds. “An agency’s capacity to continue to manage federal funds is almost predetermined by how well you are managing the funds you have. They aren’t going to give you additional funds if you are demonstrating incapacity to manage what you have,” she explained.

For census-based federal funds, it is always about student enrollment. As the enrollment in the public school system has dropped, so have these types of funds. While Keleher stated that there is no way around the formula itself, she does not rule out the possibility of enrollment in the public school system going up in the long term if the public school system improves so much that parents would be enticed to transition their children from private schools to public ones.

A holistic approach for a holist situation

While the proper management and allocation of federal funds is a very important issue, it is one more point in a list of administrative deficiencies in the Education Department. Keleher is betting on her academic preparation and over 20 years of experience in various education fields for tackling the many issues that ail the agency.

Keleher, who has both an M.B.A. and a doctorate in Education, and is bilingual in English and Spanish, started her career as a liaison between Puerto Rican (non-English speaking) parents and private schools in Philadelphia. She has also done research on various topics within the field of education; worked as a guidance counselor and at the U.S. Education Department, giving technical support and helping to monitor Puerto Rico’s Education Department. This led her to become very familiar with the federal requirements. “I became very familiar with the federal requirements from around 2007-2013 when I was there [at the US Education Department], as well as compliance and auditing, reporting, management of data, all that stuff ,” she said.

With the experience she gained in education and her business degree, Keleher established her own consulting firm in 2013. The firm would not only counsel schools on federal funds but also insert management aspects in teachers’ preparation programs. For Keleher, teachers are often unprepared for managerial positions because their preparations have been only geared toward the classroom. “That was the value proposition of the business I had. My clients were school systems that traditionally had come through teacher preparation programs but this did not prepare them for the project-management aspect [of education],” she noted.

While the new Education secretary will bring her much-needed managerial experience to the agency, she will also need to tackle the updating of the curriculum; improving technology and systematization, bureaucracy, the administration and monitoring of outside contracts; and determining the right size of the department’s footprint. For Keleher, the trick will be finding the right pace to develop the needed changes that will not antagonize those in the system and will satisfy all stakeholders, including teachers, parents and students. “Otherwise you will have 5,000 people in front of me down the road and no one behind me, and that is not going to do anyone any good. I am aware of that,” she indicated.

Finding the right-sized department

During the previous administration, the agency closed over 150 schools and reorganized around 150 more, as a measure to address the declining student population. While a decline in student enrollment, due to demographics and more residents moving stateside seeking better lives, is among the factors Keleher must consider, she is also analyzing the conditions of public schools and the possibility of attracting a population that is currently sending their kids to private schools.

“The long-term goal is to make the option so attractive that you have an influx of students in public school. It’s not impossible that the enrollment goes up; then you would need more schools to accommodate, more Special Education programs,” she explained. “At the same time, there are other schools that their physical condition does not seem to be acceptable for teachers, parents and students. To attend to that will involve paying money. There will be a cost. Then you have the option where you could consolidate and allow bigger schools with bigger resources to create economies of scale. Those are options in terms of how you manage a system of 1,200 schools, with a student enrollment of 350,000-plus kids. That’s just basic math,” she added.

Likewise the student to teacher ratio also will be addressed. According to the department’s numbers, there are over 32,000 teachers to accommodate a student population of about 370,000. However, the first day of the spring 2017 semester started with some schools having an insufficient number of teachers. For Keleher, the issue of teachers is not about a number, but about the offering and areas where specialized teachers are needed yet are not being recruited, versus areas that have over-hired teaching staff . “We have to get to a situation where I don’t have extra teachers and vacant positions, and teachers on the rolls who aren’t actually showing up at work,” she noted.

Bureaucracy and proper administration

With a ratio of around 1.5 teachers per administrative employee, the size of the bureaucracy in the agency has been identified as one of the main culprits that prevent both an efficient running of the department and the proper use of funds. However, problems like organizing the budget and outside contractors that have performed poorly are among the other aspects that need to be addressed.

Fixing a big bureaucracy involves more than reducing the number of staff , as it will also require streamlining processes and organizing information better, not just for administrative workers but also reviewing the administrative load for teachers. “We have a problem right now whereby teachers feel like their administrative requirements are outweighing the opportunities they really have to engage in effective instruction of the kids,” the designated Education chief said.

Keleher also expressed a desire to transform the way the budget is handled, starting with finding a clearer and more organized way of presenting the budget. Likewise, she would welcome the assistance of the Office of Management & Budget, Treasury Department and the Fiscal Oversight & Management Board (FOMB) to “see what would be the right size for the budget,” as well as consider a non-unitary structure for the department. To help ease the budgetary burden, Keleher would also consider establishing programs in collaboration with other agencies such as the Housing Department. Another option for the designated secretary would be collaborations with municipalities and the private sector when it comes to managing and sponsoring public schools.

While she establishes what the agency will need to accomplish quickly, in the short term, versus the long-term goals, Keleher will need to deal with the issue of outside contracts. As a measure to prevent interruptions in essential services, the department extended all outside contracts for three months. All the contracts are supposed to be evaluated during this period to assess the level of performance, types of services provided and whether there are redundancies. At the end of that period, it is also expected that the department will implement different accountability mechanisms including a clause that will seek to measure the quality of the services rendered, since Keleher has received inconsistencies in the feedback schools are giving about the outside providers. While Keleher does not see this mechanism as a panacea she said, “it is not that [the clause] will fix all the problems, but it will create the mechanism to deal with them.”

While there are many administrative challenges ahead, Keleher feels that as an outsider, she brings a different perspective to improve the department. “I believe it’s always good to have a degree of objectivity, and maybe it’s more obvious and comes easier for me as an outsider [coming to Puerto Rico],” she said. She sees herself as someone who is an integral part of the process but also seeing things above the fray, “on the balcony,” so to speak.

Keleher also recognizes the cultural and linguistic challenges of trying to communicate in Spanish, trying to navigate the Puerto Rican culture and making sure something is appropriate for the local context. “My training has prepared me for that,” she said, adding that she is not daunted by the challenges of managing and reforming the Education Department.

In the classroom and standardized testing

Another place where Keleher will need to take Puerto Rico’s cultural needs and idiosyncrasies into consideration is in reshaping the public schools’ curriculum. Since it was mentioned by the FOMB as one of its priorities, the new curriculum will likely be more geared toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and English immersion. Likewise, Keleher indicated that the curriculum should be an expression of what is relevant for today’s generation and should give students “the skills that will help them get a job.”

Keleher stated it is important to understand the cultural aspects and the fact Puerto Rico is a Spanish-dominated island, that there is also a need to evaluate different philosophies and systems. “We should consider examples in other places that have education programs that we like, how they were designed and that is not a one size fits all. That is a spreadsheet that has multiple tabs for different scenarios,” she said. Furthermore, Keleher is aware that to establish a successful curriculum, there is also a need to prepare teachers for the different subjects—not just English—as well as provide them the proper resources.

While the designated secretary is open to evaluating a variety of education schemes, this does not signal the end of standardized tests, of which Puerto Rico students have historically scored below par in such areas as science, math and English. Keleher indicated that there was a period in which the administration of the standardized tests was deeply flawed, but the system has evolved and, ultimately, it is a federal requirement and there is a need to have a system of accountability.

Finally, Keleher explained that her ultimate goal is to establish a public school system in which students are excited to go to school, teachers feel supported, buildings are in good condition, there is technology everywhere and there is an appropriately sized administrative structure. But to achieve those benchmarks, the focus needs to be on long-lasting systemic changes rather than instant gratification, and smaller changes taken at the right pace. Keleher points out that the current situation at the agency is the result of years of decay, so it cannot be fixed overnight. The same could be said of many other issues that Puerto Rico is facing today.

– By María Soledad Dávila Calero and Rosario Fajardo


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