Saturday, August 8, 2020

Schools Pegged for Closing Get Reprieve

By on June 10, 2017

SAN JUAN — Lack of resources has led the Education Department to postpone the closing of some schools due to the continuing drop in student enrollment, particularly regarding the specific requirements of Special Education students.

“There were other issues where we had students who were Special Education students, that we knew we would not be able, humanly, to just marshal the forces and put good conditions into [the appropriate schools] to receive those students. So, what do we do? We have to say, ‘OK, I’m going to hold this back for a year,” Education Secretary Julia Keleher said to Caribbean Business.

Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher (Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

She said this “is not a change in the decisions that were made,” but “a reflective analysis of additional information that was presented.”

At the same time, she indicated that the agency has yet to figure out how the receiving schools are going to be reconditioned to be able to attend to the Special Education students and how much the work will cost.

Originally, the department intended to close about 179 schools that were identified after a “rigorous, long three-and-a-half-month process,” but Keleher admitted that, after allowing the communities to be affected by the closing of the schools to react to the decision, some proposals came up that warranted “a second look.” About a dozen of those schools are getting a one-year reprieve.

One such proposal was a signed agreement from community sponsors willing to provide maintenance to the school. There is also a letter of intent for a “potential PPP [public-private partnership],” whereby an investor wants to help build a school in a rural area, Keleher said.

She also expects that some corporate entities will make good on their social commitment and help the Education Department in retrofitting schools by adopting at least one of them.

“We have a year to figure that out [how to prepare the receiving schools]. So, [let’s] say a school has one more year because I need more time to make the receiving school ready…. During that year, the school community goes out and talks to Wal-Mart and says, ‘Hey Wal-Mart, we have a problem…we want to know if you’ll sponsor our school.’ This is the kind of commitment we need. And Wal-Mart says yes!” said an enthusiastic Keleher.

Due in large part to demographic changes and outmigration to the U.S. mainland because of the island’s ongoing economic crisis, public school enrollment has dropped dramatically. This year an estimated 365,000 students are enrolled in public schools, compared to some 527,000 in 2007-2008, according to agency figures. The system currently has 1,297 public schools.

In related matters, the Education chief also indicated she does not believe the much-expected budget cuts will have a significant impact at the classroom level because most of the cuts resulting from the newly presented budget were expected for the administrative area. Although she anticipated a $160 million cut from the department’s current budget of $2.6 billion, the executive branch’s proposed cut came to $43.7 million.

“Where are we making cuts? In transportation, for example. We’ve done that by optimizing the routes the buses will run, so the idea is to have all the geocodes for the students—where they are getting picked up and where they need to go–and we make sure the buses go along that route…. So, you realize that with a 10% reduction in transportation costs, you are not going to see any changes in the quality of the instruction in the classroom,” Keleher said before the government administration’s 2018 budget was made public.

Other areas where she anticipated cutbacks were in administrative contracts, regional and district administrative structures, and mailing costs, among other line items in the budget. “If you cut a little bit of those kinds of things and you try to operate more efficiently, you’ll be able to generate the savings you need,” Keleher argued.

Second round of school closures

This is not the first time the government is closing schools, as previous Gov. Alejandro García Padilla shuttered about 150 public schools. The García Padilla administration had hired Boston Consulting Group to assess the department’s situation and determine the possibility of closing several schools to cut costs, among other things. One of the study’s recommendations was to close almost 500 schools, but this number was pared down significantly. At the time, Keleher participated in the assessment process as an Education Department consultant.

Even former Gov. Sila M. Calderón did her own study on the subject and hired McKinsey & Co. The reports on those studies must certainly be kept at the department.

—Editor Rosario Fajardo contributed to this story.

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