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Puerto Rico to close nearly 200 public schools amid fiscal crisis

By on May 5, 2017

SAN JUAN – Education Secretary Julia Keleher released Friday the official list of the 179 schools to be closed the next school year, which begins in August. The closures, she said are not only due to the small size these, but also their enrollment and the state of their infrastructure.

With the consolidation, the administration anticipates some $7.3 million in savings, which were not included in the budget presented by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to the Financial Oversight & Management Board, a document that has not been made public. Although the expectation is these savings will be invested in academic programs and infrastructure improvements, the Education secretary said it is not her decision whether the generated savings are kept at the agency.

The 27,431 students and 2,786 teachers who will be affected by the consolidation will be relocated to 197 schools.

Education Secretary Julia Keleher said she was open to listen to concerns from affected communities, but explained they must discuss them with their respective representatives in order to adhere to protocol. (Cindy Burgos/CB)

Education Secretary Julia Keleher said she was open to listen to the concerns of the affected communities, but explained the process involves discuss them with their respective representatives. (Cindy Burgos/CB)

During a press conference at Education Department headquarters in Hato Rey, Keleher said five schools that had originally been considered were removed from the list–which initially included 184 schools–following requests made by the school community. The specific schools haven’t been made public yet.

The Mayagüez public education region will have the highest number of consolidations, or 34, followed by the Ponce and Arecibo regions, each of which will have 28 schools closed. Meanwhile, San Juan do without 25 fewer schools. Bayamón and Caguas will close 22, and 20 will be shuttered in Humacao. Fifty percent of the schools did not object to being closed, but 31% expressed objection, 9% didn’t recommend closure and 10% recommended closure in a second round of consolidations next year.

“The beauty of this process is no one here is going to lose their job. We aren’t dismissing anyone,” the official assured, adding that the transfer of employees between schools has begun. However, nearly 9,000 teachers who work under temporary contracts risk not being rehired.

Although she said she was open to dialogue with communities who oppose the closures, Keleher said the process requires that any concerns be raised with the unions, which in turn would express them to the educational regions.

The Education secretary will summon the representatives of these regions to evaluate the concerns, because these “aren’t going [to be addressed] case by case.” She added that she respected those who believe they should protest, but insisted that all complaints should go according to the established process.

“[Some schools] with few resources, with their infrastructure problems, the request was: ‘Leave it open.’ If we continue the same premise of ‘this is how it’s done,’ we won’t improve anything,” Keleher said defensively.

The official said that although willing to receive proposals and comments from the school communities regarding the closures, her department received few, with mayors being the most reluctant to the proposed changes. Of the affected communities, the Arecibo region sent the most proposals, with more than 40 presented March 17. The other regions presented fewer than 30 proposals each.

“If people don’t do it, whose decision is it? The [Education] secretary’s … What we intended to do was to give communities the opportunity to develop their own proposals … based on the premise that we have a fiscal crisis here, we have few resources, and [we are] distributing nearly $3 billion in a system in which there are no books. Faced with that, we must rethink the way we do things,” she insisted.

When asked by Caribbean Business about what’s next for the schools closed, Keleher replied, “We have to make a plan. The idea isn’t to leave schools closed so they become a problem for the community. We have a lot of interest from people who have already asked about using the schools. The thing is I can’t tell you with certainty how it can be done because we just finished identifying the schools [that will be closed].”

Having now selected the 179 schools to be shut, Keleher has begun the process of requesting the utilities to discontinue providing service to begin producing the projected savings.

The secretary is also in the process of restructuring her department as well to have “smaller structures.”

As first reported by CB, the Education secretary’s goal is to have “fewer than 1,000 schools.” With the proposed closures, the number of schools drops to 1,113, Keleher said.

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