HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Feb. 27) - The Guam Education Policy Board declared a state of financial emergency last night for the Department of Education.

The department owes $43.1 million to utility agencies, the Retirement Fund, the Department of Revenue and Taxation, payroll vendors, and to pay contracts for supplies and services dating back to 1997. Rev and Tax has placed a lien on any money the Department of Administration releases to the education department, for unpaid DOE employees' withholding taxes, DOE officials told the board during the meeting.

Board members voted 7-1 in favor of the declaration with Romeo Hernandez of Lagu District voting against, saying he questions the authority being given to DOE interim Superintendent Nerissa Bretania-Shafer. Hernandez' wife, Vivian Hernandez, is a DOE instructional aide who was recently moved from DOE's central office to work at Astumbo Elementary School.

"My decision had nothing to do with my wife -- I just question the authority we are giving," he said.

Board member Jose Nededog of Haya District said public education must become the top priority of the Legislature and Gov. Felix Camacho when they make needed cuts throughout the government of Guam.

"Our concerns are going to deaf ears. What is the government's priority? I cannot see the existence of Mass Transit, CAHA, Parks and Rec over DOE," he said. "The Legislature and administration have to look at the resources of this island. This department is dying."

If the Legislature passes the budget bill in its current form, the education department stands to receive $78.4 million for personnel and operations for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year, leaving the department short $14.6 million for personnel and operations. Earlier this month, the department asked for $91.6 million to cover the same time period.

Bretania-Shafer told board members the Department of Administration could guarantee providing the education department only $2.5 million this week, short of the department's $2.9 million net payroll.

She said the department could delay payroll until $2.9 million is received and use the $2.5 million to pay employees' automatic payroll deductions, which include mortgage payments and personal savings accounts. Those payments already are late two pay periods, she said.

DOE's legal counsel is expected to draft a resolution today outlining cost-cutting options the department is considering, which will be signed by board Chairwoman Rosa Palomo, then sent to the governor and senators.

Last night's declaration allows the department to consider options to reduce costs, including pay cuts, employee furloughs, consolidation of schools, ending the school year early or delaying the start of next school year until October, and suspension of a contract with the Guam Federation of Teachers, according to DOE officials and board members.

The department also is considering leaving 200 teaching positions vacant. Those vacancies would occur if the department consolidated four schools into two: J.P. Torres and Harry S. Truman elementary schools, and F.Q. Sanchez and Merizo Martyrs elementary schools.

Teacher union representative Matt Rector said he opposed the declaration because the board is giving "a blank check" to Bretania-Shafer.

Board member Jeni Ann Flores of Lagu District disagreed, saying "even if we did give Nerissa a blank check, I would trust her."

"The rules of engagement have changed. We would really like to honor the (board-union) contract, but help us," Flores told Rector.

Board member Patricia Bennett of Luchan District said the contract "was designed in better times."

"All of us need to come together now," Bennett said.

February 27, 2003

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