Indicted former Puerto Rico Education sec’s assistant sentenced to probation

Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher (CB file)

Claimed housing, Medicaid while working with Keleher, who paid in cash

SAN JUAN — On Tuesday afternoon, federal Judge Aida Delgado sentenced Iovaska Claudio Vargas, the personal assistant of indicted former Education Secretary Julia Keleher, to a year and a half probation for making false statements when applying for the federal housing program, Section 8, and participating in the Medicaid program despite not being eligible.

Shortly after 2 p.m., Judge Delgado sentenced Keleher’s former assistant, who was represented by Allan A. Rivera Fernández, to 18 months probation.

Claudio Vargas must return $3,000 to the federal government. She did make remarks in court before being handed her sentence. According to the criminal case file, on May 30, Keleher’s former assistant pleaded guilty before the federal Magistrate Judge Camille Vélez Rivé to five charges related to making false statements when requesting Section 8 eligibility and claiming she did not work in either the private or public sectors nor was self-employed.

Specifically, according to indictment returned by a grand jury on Jan. 4, Claudio Vargas’s made the false statements on Sept. 15, 2017, Sept. 19, 2018, and Nov. 29, 2018, to benefit of the housing program. She would receive $800 a month to pay apartment rent.

The case file states that Claudio Vargas worked for the former Education secretary at the time, as her personal assistant, earning monthly income.

Likewise, the indictment for which Claudio Vargas was sentenced includes that, on June 20, 2018, she falsely stated she was unemployed to receive Medicaid program benefits. Claudio Vargas again made a false statement for the same purpose Aug. 28, 2018.

An affidavit by an agent of the Education Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which accompanies the criminal complaint filed by the federal prosecutor on Dec. 4, argues that it all began early in 2017 when Claudio Vargas met Officer 1 of the Puerto Rico Department of Education and began working as her personal assistant, earning a monthly salary for her services.

According to the legal document, on July 6, 2017, Claudio Vargas sent Keleher an email requesting to be her personal assistant. Her husband is a police officer and was part of the then-secretary of Education’s security escort.

After providing a copy of her high school diploma, according to the affidavit, Keleher hired Claudio Vargas and even took out a credit card in her name to pay utilities, clothes she sent to the laundry, supermarket purchases and even furniture for her apartment.

Keleher paid Claudio Vargas in cash, and the affidavit states that the income was never notified to either the housing department or Medicaid nor did she file returns with Treasury.

A review of the archives of the Department of the Treasury showed that “Officer 1,” or Keleher, did not file either a W-2 or Form 480 in relation to Claudio Vargas nor that Claudio Vargas filed income tax returns, according to the affidavit that gave way to the arrest of Keleher’s former assistant.

Follow Limarys Suárez Torres on Twitter: @Limarys_Suarez




Former heads of Puerto Rico Education Dept. and Health Insurance Administration arrested along with president of BDO

At the lectern, Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez, U.S. attorney for the District of Puerto Rico; and, to her left, Douglas Leff, FBI special agent in charge of the San Juan division (CyberNews)

U.S. House Natural Resources Committee chairman calls for governor to step down over alleged $15.5 million contract scheme

SAN JUAN – The former secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education (PR DOE), Julia Keleher; the former director of the Health Insurance Administration (ASES by its Spanish acronym), Ángela Ávila; the president of accounting and auditing firm BDO Puerto Rico, Fernando Scherrer, and subcontractor Alberto Velázquez Piñol were arrested by federal officials after a grand jury returned a 32-count indictment.

The indictment also charges Glenda E. Ponce Méndoza, who worked as Keleher’s special assistant despite not being a department employee, and her sister, Mayra Ponce Mendoza, owner of consulting firm Colón & Ponce.

The Justice Department held a press conference in which Rosa Emilia Rodríguez-Vélez, U.S. attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, provided details of the operation carried out by the FBI and the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services (OIG-HHS) earlier Wednesday.

“Both Keleher and Ávila Marrero exploited their privileged positions as heads of agencies in Puerto Rico. Both defrauded the United States government and Puerto Rico in a contract scheme upwards of $15.5 million, $13 million in [the Education] Department and $2.5 million in ASES,” the district attorney said, adding that the conspiracy charges carry a sentence of up to five years, while money laundering and wire fraud charges carry a sentence of up to 20 years.

Rodríguez Vélez went on to explain that the 32 charges cover three schemes, two in the Department of Education and one in ASES, that were carried out from 2017 to 2019. 

Counts 1 to 11 in the indictment cover the contracts that Colón & Ponce received, allegedly because of the close relationship with the then-Education secretary, for whom there was no evidence presented of having benefited financially.

“The purpose of the conspiracy was to steer contracts between the PR DOE and Colón & Ponce, a company owned by Mayra Ponce Mendoza. This was accomplished through a corrupted bidding process pursuant to a Request for Proposal (“RFP”), wherein Colón & Ponce was provided with a competitive advantage over other bidders based in part, on the close relationship between Keleher, Glenda Ponce-Mendoza, and her sister Mayra Ponce-Mendoza,” the Justice Department said in a written summary. 

Furthermore, Rodríguez explained that despite pressure from Keleher to grant the contract to Colón & Ponce, no one in the Education Department’s Office of Federal Affairs had asked for those types of services, and the indictment states that someone, identified as Individual C, from the office of the Education Department Process Official for Fund Adjudication Unit, “concluded that Colón & Ponce was the only company that was not qualified for the contract, and was the worst applicant.” 

Nevertheless, Colón & Ponce received a $43,000 contract that was then increased to $95,000 to pay one of Keleher’s assistants, who was not classified as an Education employee.

As for the remaining two schemes, Rodríguez explained they were similar but instead benefited Velázquez Piñol through a contract with BDO, which was contracted by the Education Department and ASES.

“The conspiracy and scheme to defraud involved federal funds paid by PR DOE to BDO for several contracts totaling over $13 million from January 2017 until April 2019. Despite express prohibitions in said contracts, BDO subcontracted other companies to perform the services, and paid Velázquez through his company, Azur, a 10% commission for the contracts awarded through Velázquez-Piñol’s influence with government officials,” Justice said. 

Keleher, who resigned April 1, was arrested in Washington, D.C., by the FBI, and as with Velázquez Piñol, who was arrested in Greenwich, Connecticut, after turning himself in, the process to bring them back to the island may take about eight days.

Keleher must surrender to the federal authorities in Puerto Rico by July 17, as determined in a Washington court.

The other four arrested were released on bail. Both Ángela Ávila, as well as the contractor sisters Glenda and Mayra Ponce Mendoza were released after paying a $25,000 bail. Scherrer’s bail requires a $2 million deposit, or $1 million in cash and $1 million in assets.

In a statement, BDO Puerto Rico said Scherrer submitted his resignation, which “will allow Mr. Scherrer to focus on his defense, while allowing BDO to concentrate its efforts on providing services” to its clients. It added that it takes the “allegations made by federal authorities very seriously and reiterate our willingness to continue cooperating.”

A day earlier, former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s chief adviser Alfonso Orona had been interviewed by OIG-HHS agents. The arrests were made less than 24 hours after Orona testified before a grand jury regarding Velázquez’s relationship with the government.

Rodríguez assured the governor was not part of the ongoing investigation, for which she later replied to questions from the press, saying it involved several municipalities as well as “new accusations” coming.

Orona admitted he was questioned about Velázquez’s activities in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, to authenticate official documents and provide evidence of the participation of the contractor in the awarding of government health plan contracts.

Velázquez was also in charge of working with the Health Department in the implementation of the first Medicaid Management Information System (MMIS) and served as an external adviser to the Education Department.

In a statement, Gov. Rosselló, who was vacationing in Europe and said he would return earlier than planned, added that his administration “will not tolerate corruption and anyone who betrays the trust [in government] should pay with the full weight of law.”

“Likewise, I reiterate the call for collaboration with the law and order agencies that work on these cases,” he added.  

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona (CB file)

Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the chairman of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Puerto Rico matters in Congress, said Rosselló must take “immediate steps” to restore his administration’s credibility.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Grijalva called on Rosselló to resign.

“We’ve crossed that crucible now,” Grijalva said. “The restoration of accountability is so key going forward.”

In a statement posted earlier on his official webpage, the congressman wrote: “Announcing a zero-tolerance attitude toward corruption is easy. Taking meaningful steps to prevent and punish it is leadership,” adding, “The Puerto Rican people deserve a government that takes public service seriously, that’s transparent and accountable, and that doesn’t let this happen in the first place. Gov. Rosselló has little time and much to do to restore public faith in his government, and I urge him to take a housecleaning approach as quickly and thoroughly as possible.”




Powerful conservative groups influence Puerto Rico Education Department

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló delivered a keynote speech at the anniversary gala of the Center for Education Reform, an entity related to the law firm where his brother works and which promotes charter schools. (Twitter)

Shareholder of firm where the gov’s brother works is a Center for Education Reform board member

SAN JUAN – One of the shareholders of the law firm that Jay Rosselló, brother of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, works for, sits on the board of the Center for Education Reform (CER), a nonprofit whose representatives met with the governor in December to learn about details of the Education Reform Law that allows the creation of alliance, or charter, schools.

According to CER’s website, Dennis Cariello is a shareholder of Hogan, Marren, Babbo & Rose Ltd. and the co-chairman of the firm’s education practice.

CER is a recognized entity linked to conservative groups that advocates for the privatization of schools through the development of charter schools and voucher program legislation for disadvantaged students to be educated at schools with more resources.

Hogan Marren also provided consulting to the Department of Education and then-Secretary Julia Keleher amid the drafting process of the education reform law, which allows the establishment of charter schools in Puerto Rico. The firm also collaborated with then-Senate President Eduardo Bhatia, during the past government administration, with his education reform bill, which also sought to establish what are locally called alliance schools.

CER is reportedly a member of two powerful conservative and libertarian entities, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the State Policy Network.

The Nation reports that both the State Policy Network and ALEC receive financial support from brothers Charles and David Koch, known in Puerto Rico for their media campaign to prevent Puerto Rico from seeking protection under the federal Bankruptcy Code.

Puerto Rico seems to have entered fully into a debate that has been developing stateside for decades, in which ultra-conservative policies are being established at the local government level, reflecting political campaign donations by different groups and the influence of think tanks. Among the policies pushed by these groups are the privatization of schools, market deregulation and tax reduction for the high earners.

On Friday, Gov. Rosselló confirmed that, on Dec. 10, he met in with his brother and CER representatives at his office, La Fortaleza, to provide “input on the reform the Department had done, not only the law, but the regulation.” The law to which the governor referred is the local educational reform that allows the creation of charter schools.

Gov. Rosselló said the meeting took place after participating in a CER event in October, where he asked for assistance in his administration’s efforts toward establishing charter schools. The event was CER’s 25th anniversary gala, for which the governor was a keynote speaker.

By then, the Education Reform Act was already approved in Puerto Rico and the governor’s brother Jay had been working at Hogan Marren for a year, providing “advice and counsel to public, private, non-profit and for-profit educational institutions, corporations, private equity firms, service providers and other participants in the educational space on a variety of topics….”

In a January blog post on the firm’s website by Jay Rosselló, he identifies himself as the contact person to explore the possibilities of establishing charter schools in Puerto Rico.

Among the founding members of CER is Alice Walton, the only daughter of the heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune and who, through the Walton Family Foundation, donated several thousand dollars to the Puerto Rico Education Fund (PREF) to invest in the education sector.

The idea of creating the PREF was of former secretary Keleher, who sought a salary raise to $400,000 and that it be financed by PREF.

In addition to the Walton Family Foundation, PREF also received $15 million from the Tenacre Foundation, linked to the efforts of conservative groups such as CER and ALEC.




Former Puerto Rico Education secretary sought $400,000 salary

Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher (Efrén Rodríguez/CB)

Matter was discussed at governor’s office but allegedly not supported

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico’s former secretary of Education, Julia Keleher, brought the Tenacre Foundation to invest in the island’s education, but the proposal was accompanied by a request for the entity to pay her salary, at a rate of $400,000 a year.

In an interview with CB en Español, Manuel Cidre, the former vice chairman of the Puerto Rico Education Foundation (PREF), said it was Keleher who brought the Tenacre Foundation to the island, and when it presented its proposal to donate $15 million over five years, a provision for the salary of the secretary to be paid from that fund was included.

“It seemed a good idea to me that the government would not have to pay an official’s salary and could use those funds for other things the schools need, but she, Keleher, asked that if the foundation was going to pay the salary, all the work she did, did not cost $250,000, it cost $400,000,” Cidre said.

“The PREF board did not accept that and the proposal was reformulated without the salary of the secretary,” he added.

According to a report by Metro, the question about the viability of a private entity paying the salary of the secretary of Education reached the governor’s office, La Fortaleza, but was not accepted either. Confronted with the report’s information, Keleher denied she had asked for the amount.

“At some point, I was contemplating, as an idea, how Puerto Rico could get out of this and not have to pay me anything, because there are examples where people lead systems but the state does not pay them or the system does not pay them, and at some point I thought about it, but it was only thinking about how,” Keleher told Metro at the time.

Cidre, who ran as an independent gubernatorial candidate in the last elections, said Tenacre Foundation’s proposal was discussed and processed with the endorsement of the Justice, Ethics and Treasury departments, as well as La Fortaleza.

While serving as Education secretary, Keleher also had a $250,000 contract with the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym).

Keleher is reportedly being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for alleged irregularities in the awarding of contracts at the Department of Education.

Puerto Rico Senate approves Dr. Eligio Hernández Pérez as acting Education secretary




Former Puerto Rico Education secretary terminates contract with fiscal agency

Julia Keleher (CB file)

Following resignation and amid alleged investigation, won’t receive some $60,000

SAN JUAN – Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher renounced her $250,000 contract with the island’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym), Public Affairs Secretary Anthony Maceira Zayas confirmed Thursday.

In his statement, Maceira announced that Ricardo Llerandi, chief of staff of the governor’s office, La Fortaleza, accepted Keleher’s decision to end her contractual relationship with Aafaf, arguing that “no situation should divert attention from the work that is being done to continue transforming Puerto Rico.”

Llerandi thanked Keleher “for putting Puerto Rico and the children before any issue,” adding that for the governor’s administration, it is “essential” that “major issues are the ones that prevail in the public discussion. I Immediately accepted and agreed with Keleher’s determination and informed Aafaf,” which “has terminated the agreement, effective immediately.”

Keleher’s decision comes about after she stepped down this week and subsequent reports of a federal investigation into alleged irregularities in the awarding of Education Department contracts while she was secretary.

Before resigning as head of the agency, Keleher held a $250,000 contract with Aafaf to advise on matters related to the restructuring of the Education Department, which she ran until April 2.

Her contract began in August 2017 and was set to end June 30. The third clause on the cancellation of the contract, stipulates that in case she opts to terminate the agreement before the scheduled date, she would have to notify Aafaf 30 days earlier, as long as there were no reasons beyond Keleher’s control to make it unethical or impractical for her to continue working under that agreement.

The contract provided that Keleher be paid $20,833.33 a month, which at the end of the year could not exceed $250,000. She must return to the government any confidential information to which she has had access within 30 days after the end of the contract.

Read a commentary written by Keleher and published by Education Week the day after she resigned.

Puerto Rico secretaries of Education, Public Safety step down

 




Judge requests information from Puerto Rico Education secretary

Education Secretary Julia Keleher (CB file)

SAN JUAN – Federal officials arrived in Puerto Rico’s Education Department headquarters Wednesday afternoon with an information request, under penalty of contempt, for Secretary Julia Keleher.

Judge Jay García Gregory issued the warrant for Keleher, who reportedly is abroad. The investigation is related to Rocket Learning, a tutoring company that is under investigation for alleged illegal billings. This investigation involves the 2011 to 2013 period for services that were not offered but charged $1 million, according to reports.

The warrant “was left without effect after the Education Department notified that it is working to produce the required information as part of a case before the Federal Court, of which the department is not part,” it said in a statement that stressed that the matter is related to developments before Keleher’s tenure.

Lymarie Llovet, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the documents in the case are sealed and had no further details, the Associated Press reported.




U.S. Education Dept.: Puerto Rico to pilot ‘student-centered funding system’

SAN JUAN — U.S. Education (DOE) Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Monday that the Puerto Rico Department of Education will be the first to pilot “new flexibility under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to create a student-centered funding system,” the federal department’s release reads, adding that the model is designed to “equitably allocate local, state and federal resources based on student needs.”

DeVos said the funding system “will help to ensure those with the greatest need receive the most support,” adding that she is “pleased to see Puerto Rico rethinking school and putting students’ needs above all else” despite the island continuing to recover from last year’s historic hurricanes.

In the DOE’s release, Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher is quoted as saying: “Puerto Rico’s ability to provide a quality education for its youth depends on how we fund K-12 education and the way funds are allocated. This pilot allows us to take a more scientific approach and track the relationship between strategic investments and future learning gains. We are committed to implementing effective solutions that benefit our students and ensure accountability to our families.”

ESSA provides for 50 school districts to pilot a student-centered funding system that combines local, state and federal dollars, that “allows maximal resources to be allocated to schools based on quantifiable student need, directing the most resources to support students who need them most. The result is a more equitable, predictable and transparent method of allocating resources that puts students first,” the DOE’s published announcement reads.

ESSA requires that pilot districts allocate more funding for students from “low-income families, English learners, and any other educationally disadvantaged group as chosen by the school district,” with Puerto Rico rural school students for the latter.

U.S. Education Department awards Puerto Rico $589 million in disaster assistance




Puerto Rico mayors take stand against school closures

SAN JUAN — After Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher announced Thursday that 283 more public schools will be closed, several mayors expressed concern with the decision, despite having been recently convened by the department official to discuss the matter.

Many mayors did not show up, such as Caguas Mayor William Miranda, who said he was concerned over the closure of 10 schools in his municipality.

“As mayor, I’m very aware of the fiscal scenario the country is going through, but balancing public finances should not be done at the expense of the education of our new generations. Direct dialogue and citizen participation in this process are crucial for a balance in decision-making and the benefit of students and the school community in general,” Miranda said.

Dorado Mayor Carlos López said the that with the school closures “the future of children is being closed” as well and claimed that the municipalities are not part of the process.

“In Dorado’s case, it is completely illogical to close five schools in our jurisdiction, including in the urban area. Municipalities were not aware of the decisions made and we have not been told whether alternatives for how to keep these schools open exist,” López said in a statement.

“The Education secretary made us invest in the reconstruction of the Teresa Préstamo School, giving us the right to adopt it and we achieved surpassing the expectation for enrollment, and now, for no reason, fails to fulfill her commitment and keep her word, closing [the school] to the Espinosa community, thus we request respect for students, parents and teachers. In addition, we demand that the Education Department make available the mechanisms so that towns can take over the schools and avoid closing them,” he added.

Puerto Rico Education secretary announces closure of 283 public schools

Amid criticism by the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) minority mayors, Public Affairs & Public Policy Secretary Ramón Rosario denounced that most were absent from the meeting organized by Keleher.

In a statement Friday, Rosario said only three of the 45 PDP mayors attended the meeting, where municipal executives could have made their case.

“When they had the opportunity to contribute, they declined. In fact, the president of the Mayors Association himself, Rolando Ortiz, was absent.” The association is composed of PDP mayors.

The Public Affairs secretary denied any political bias in the decision-making process, arguing that five of the 10 most affected municipalities have New Progressive Party (NPP) majority mayors.

Another municipal official that reacted was Morovis Mayor Carmen Maldonado, who posted on her Twitter account that “[Gov. Ricardo] Rosselló has declared war on the children of Morovis when announcing the closure of the Carlos Alverio, Manuel A. Díaz and SU David Colón Vega schools. This mayor will defend these schools together with the communities.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz warned that she would also fight against the closures.

“To close schools is to break apart a community; it’s to tell the school community that they don’t count. In San Juan, we will fight the closures,” Cruz tweeted, and that “there are schools in the San Juan closure list where the municipality invested thousands of dollars to put them in[working] condition and now [serve as] example.”

The public affairs secretary further said it was “unfortunate that some mayors from the Mayors Association once again use an issue as important as school closures to misinform,” and that Lajas Mayor Marcos Irizarry could “attest that we listen to reasonable approaches without looking at [party] colors. The Ramón Olivares de Lajas School was left open due to the mayor’s reasonable approach.”

Rosario explained that during the school selection process “only the well-being of students was analyzed, with input from the community and from the mayors who contributed.”

Meanwhile, Vega Alta Mayor Oscar Santiago announced he will fight alongside the communities to keep the schools open.

“We will defend the permanence of the Antonio Paoli School, located in Urb. Santa Rita de Vega Alta because this school is a model in the educational region. It is based on the Montessori Method and it is excellent. They’ve already closed a school in the Maricao neighborhood. One can understand the Education Department’s fiscal reasons, but the Antonio Paoli School is an example of what we can achieve as a country if we invest in the education of our children,” Santiago wrote.

The mayor also said he will also defend the Barrio Bajuras school, a community removed from Vega Alta’s urban center and also separated by the Cibuco River, which overflows under heavy rains.

Former NPP Rep. María Vega said the list of schools to be closed includes one that was renovated under the Plan for 21st Century Schools via a legislative allocation she procured while representing District 11 of the towns of Vega Alta, Dorado and Vega Baja.

“I think the Education secretary should take a little walk around these schools and reconsider a decision that represents greater setbacks than advantages for the educational system,” she said, referring to the José D. Rosado school in Barrio Bajura Almirante and the Antonio Paoli school in the Santa Rita urbanization.

–CyberNews contributed to this report.




Puerto Rico Education secretary announces closure of 283 public schools

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher announced Thursday the closure of 283 schools across the island, a move that would achieve a saving of an estimated $150 million.

She explained that the numbers of closures by August was reached in part after an analysis and visits to an initial number of schools suggested by the directors of the Regional Educational Offices based on various specific or combined factors.

(Juan J. Rodríguez/CB)

Those factors include enrollment, low percentage of space use, school premises condition, areas of criminal incidence, distance, accessibility, academic achievement, and special education services.

“There is no specific combination in any of the cases,” the secretary said. She assured that displaced department employees would be reassigned to other schools.

“We know it is a painful and difficult process. Because of this, it has been done in the most sensitive way possible, taking into consideration all the elements that could impact the daily life of some families and school communities in general. Likewise, we encouraged mayors to submit proposals for schools that will be left in disuse so these schools can become activity centers for their communities,” Keleher said.

She also said that the department’s budget for the next school year ensures the possibility of offering the resources that students need, adding that, since May 2017, there are 38,762 fewer students enrolled.

University of Puerto Rico fiscal plan due Thursday must reflect tuition hike

In addition, Keleher assured funds were assigned to provide the necessary materials and faculty needed.

“This reflects a responsible and transparent fiscal planning ensuring that commitment to the students is first and equally reflects the reality that, in almost half of existing schools, only 60 percent of their capacity is being used,” she explained.

The secretary added that under Act 3 of 2017, which decrees the purposes for agencies to take temporary emergency measures to achieve continued government operation that can provide essential services, the department’s resources will be maximized amid the fiscal reality.




House passes Puerto Rico governor’s education reform with amendments

SAN JUAN — While some shouted “Don’t lie” at lawmakers from the Puerto Rico House of Representative’s gallery, and police officers tried to stop the demonstrators, lower chamber legislators passed a greatly amended education reform bill amid opposition from minority delegations.

Among the amendments included in the Education, Art & Culture Committee report is a provision that charter schools will be “public, free, non-sectarian, and free of any type of discrimination”; and “at least two” schools will be established per educational region.

The Puerto Rico House of Representatives (Génesis Ibarra/CB)

“It is established that the number of Alliance Schools will not be greater than 10 percent, based on the total number of public schools functioning as of Aug. 15, 2018,” one of the amendments reads. The commonwealth’s fiscal plan proposes reducing the total number of schools to 805, thus 10 percent represents roughly 80 schools.

Rep. Denis Márquez, the spokesman of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, denounced that the 176-page bill intends to “condemn us to failure again” and added that the “ill-named education reform” does not include real will to address what he believes is the greatest problem in the education system: political control in the department.

“During the process of discussing this bill [and] of an alleged education reform, public education has been criminalized, and the teachers of this country have been criminalized,” he said, arguing that teachers have been blamed for the “educational disaster.”

One of the amendments the representative questioned was the privatization of several areas of the education system. He argued that the reform would, for example, allow the Education Department to privatize school cafeteria services, specifically through public-private partnerships or cafeteria employee cooperatives.

Sen. Sanders opposes Puerto Rico education reform

The bill, which was voted on after a four-hour debate and mere hours after the amendments were made public, also establishes that 70 percent of the budget must for student services. The Education Department’s secretary must also submit an annual report to the legislature.

“There’s talk about 70 percent of the budget dedicated to students; the global, the state, special assignments, federal allocations. But the fact that the so-called Alliance Schools will have the same budget as other public schools is not referenced,” Márquez said.

Similarly, Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Minority Leader Rafael Hernández declared sententiously that the bill’s true purpose “is to privatize via the kitchen of Puerto Rico’s education system.” To this, he added that the cap of 10 percent to establish charter schools does not limit the number of students who could enroll.

Regarding the 80 charter schools the reform proposes to create, Rodríguez argued that, that 10 percent could mean close to 18 percent of the students, which would represent a loss for the island’s public schools.

Numerous amendments

The bill also establishes that schools “will implement special education programs for their students,” but then provides that parents must authorize their children to take the course and will be consulted about the lesson materials.

[Editorial] Education Reform for All … A Rising Tide Floats All Boats

Meanwhile, a new article proposes to establish a system of incentives to retain teachers who are difficult to hire. These could range from study leaves to bonuses and “other distinctions that emphasize educational work.”

The proposal also provides for the protocol to be followed by the Education Department when closing, consolidating or reorganizing schools. Education Secretary Julia Keleher must now prepare a “study” that includes performance indicators “that allow for the valuation of each criterion.”

Among the details that should be included are the current and projected enrollment for the next five years of the specific schools, the state of infrastructure, the number of employees per category, operational costs, and the effect of their closure on the community.

“In the event the secretary determines that the closure, consolidation and/or reorganization of schools is urgent and necessary for the preservation of students’ health or security in general, the secretary may proceed with the temporary closure of a public school, or consolidate or reorganize it,” the bill further establishes.

The proposal also addresses the concerns of the Independent Union of Employees of the Public Buildings Authority (UIEAEP), with an amendment providing that “the maintenance of facilities [sic] of public schools will be in charge of the [Public Buildings Authority] in those cases where it currently provides the service.”

Union: Public Buildings Authority threatened by Puerto Rico education reform

Regarding the educational vouchers, declared unconstitutional in 1993 under a different composition of the Supreme Court, it was established that up to 3 percent of the students of the public system will be eligible for this program during the fiscal year 2020, and up to 5 percent in subsequent years.

Demands from the gallery

The debate on education reform was marked by confrontations, protest and shouting by teachers in the House gallery, while employees of the Capitol occupying some of the available spaces witnessed the dissent silently.

The tensest moment occurred when Anés Cedeño, a teacher from Caguas, complained to the lawmakers that her school does not have either an English teacher or a school board. Immediately, police officers unsuccessfully tried to remove the young woman and union leader Eva Ayala to no avail.

“Arrest me! They have taken so much from us that they also took our fear. What am I going to lose now if they remove me [from the chamber]? What am I going to lose if everything has been taken from me?” the teacher yelled, adding that lawmakers should listen to teachers who know what real situation at schools is.