JUDGE STOPS GUAM SCHOOL PRIVATIZATION

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By Oyaol Ngirairikl

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, June 30) – A Guam Superior Court judge has ordered public school officials to temporarily withdraw or cancel their attempts to contract cafeteria, custodial and maintenance services for public schools and instead employ only classified government employees unless public school officials can show that the privatization efforts are lawful.

The Guam Federation of Teachers and Garrett Duenas had filed a petition with the court, stating that the privatization efforts are unlawful, violate the government's merit system and would eventually drive down wages or eliminate jobs for employees.

Judge Arthur Barcinas' order comes at a time when the education department has privatized cafeteria services at several schools and is attempting to contract maintenance and custodial jobs, as required by a measure passed by the previous Legislature.

Education officials are concerned that the order might affect their ability to hire needed custodians and cafeteria workers for the schools, while parents are concerned over whether their children will have clean bathrooms or a sanitary place to eat their school meals.

Guam Education Policy Board members and Guam Public School System Superintendent Juan Flores were ordered to appear in court on July 8 to explain why the alternative writ of prohibition petitioned by the teachers' union should be denied.

"We're privatizing some of the services, partly to save money, but also because the law doesn't allow us to hire the people we need to provide the services," said Superintendent Flores.

A parent interviewed yesterday said she is upset that she has to even worry about whether basic school services might be stalled.

"These are things that our children need if we want them to go to school," said Agat resident Vilma Quintanilla. "I hope they take care of this issue because I don't even know why it's an issue."

Quintanilla said that, as a parent, she's become frustrated.

"We all know the government doesn't have the money to take care of the cafeterias, so why not give privatization a chance?" Quintanilla asked.

George Washington High School Principal Begonia Flores said if the court order becomes permanent, she's not sure how the Mangilao school's four custodians would be able to handle the needs of the school, especially with about 2,600 students expected next school year.

"I can't continue to ask people in the community to help us again. They come to our rescue so often," she said. "Do I need to ask them to cut the grass in our field? ... If the department can't get a private company to feed the students, will the current staff be able to handle the workload?"

The lawsuit comes after the school system issued an invitation to private companies to provide cafeteria services for public schools.

School officials have said privatization is, in part, an attempt to cut costs at the education department. In addition, private companies have been contracted to augment the school system's dwindling staff in the cafeteria, custodial and maintenance divisions.

Public Law 27-32 prohibits the system from hiring employees to fill positions that are left vacant in those divisions when employees resign or retire.

The union filed the lawsuit asking the court to stop education officials' efforts to privatize various services, stating it would negatively affect the lives of long-time, dedicated employees. It also noted that a feasibility study for privatization was never conducted.

The writ of mandamus requires the Guam Public School System to "withdraw or cancel any pending contract, proposals, requests for proposals, or invitations to bid for performance of cafeteria, custodial or maintenance services."

Union president Matt Rector, in a written statement, said "these legislative mandates violate the merit system. If this were allowed to continue, it would only hasten the downward spiral of our standard of living.

"Driving down wages and eliminating current and future living wage jobs for our children and their families is contrary to that mission."

Garrett Duenas, who filed the petition with the teachers' union, had attempted to apply for a job as a cafeteria worker at the public school system but was informed that classified employees were not being considered for cafeteria staff positions because of the ongoing privatization efforts, according to the petition.

David Sullivan, assistant attorney general, is representing the Guam Education Policy Board and the School System, said Attorney General Douglas Moylan.

"Essentially, we disagree with the position of the union and we'll answer to their complaint in court," Moylan said.

At next week's court hearing, the judge will listen to both parties before deciding whether to make the temporary halt to privatization permanent.

"We believe that if it does go forward and they receive the relief they seek, the people of Guam will be left in a tight bind," Moylan said.

"The solution here is a legislative solution -- not a legal decision where you're tying the hands of the executive and legislative branch in order to manage education."

Sen. Larry Kasperbauer, R-Dededo, chairman of the legislative Education Committee, said he understands the union's position, but said the government must do what's best for the thousands of children who attend the island's public school system.

"I don't know how quickly this issue will be resolved. ... I do hope its done quickly," Kasperbauer said. "My primary focus is on the children and I would hope that we don't lose the children in this whole issue."

June 30, 2005

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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