GUAM LAWMAKER HIRES CONSULTANT TO REVIEW SCHOOLS

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By Steve Limtiaco

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, March 22) – A Guam senator is spending US$3,000 on an education report that so far has stated the obvious – the public school system is in trouble, needs to cut costs and improve its management.

Guam law allowed the public school system to spend US$175,000 for an independent management audit to improve its management, training and productivity, but Sen. Judith Guthertz has contracted a former lawmaker to gather some of the same information, paid for by the Legislature's budget.

"They're in the talking mode, I'm in the action mode," said Guthertz, who recently granted former Democratic senator and University of Guam adjunct professor Carmen Fernandez an extension to complete her school-system report, which was due Feb. 28. Guthertz said Fernandez now has until May 1. Guthertz is paying for the US$3,000 report with her legislative office budget.

Fernandez's contract requires Fernandez to examine management and financial issues in the school system, but Fernandez, in her request for an extension, said she needs to spend more time talking to the elected school board.

The school board, whose members are elected from the public by district, is supposed to set policy on behalf of its constituents, but it does not manage the school system, which has a superintendent, associate superintendents, chief financial officer and other professional managers on the payroll.

"As you know, this project requires extensive consultation with the board. More time is required to complete this work as the board has not been able to meet with me due to their extensive budget process and hectic meeting and public hearing schedule," Fernandez wrote in her request for more time.

Guthertz said Fernandez is being paid to work with the board "to ferret out the information I need... I'm looking at their financial management system... it's very weak, seriously flawed."

While her report and recommended legislation for Guthertz are not complete, Fernandez has for now recommended that the school system: Cut costs; perform a management audit; analyze its financial management system; and ensure that it and its board follow the law.

Fernandez also proposed removing the school system from the government's General Fund and paying for the public schools using the island's real property tax.

That funding source currently is at least US$100 million too low.

The school system currently needs about US$170 million per year in local revenue to operate, according to its budget, and GovGuam currently assesses US$22 million per year in property taxes, of which only US$16 million or US$17 million is collected.

Asked whether she could produce an education improvement report in-house, using her legislative staff, Guthertz said, "My existing staff are doing other things, and Carmen has a background here, a financial background, and administration background."

The hiring of a legislative consultant comes as lawmakers are cutting their employee salaries and furloughing at least a dozen employees because of the government's cash crisis. The Legislature is on pace to receive about half of its US$6 million budget.

Guthertz noted that the independent audit of the school system authorized under Guam law has not materialized. The budget law gave the school system until the beginning of the year to use the spending authority for an audit.

"I'm sure once a formalized audit is completed, it will be very helpful. But that should not deter me from beginning my work," she said.

Guthertz said she intends to use the information, combined with her own observations, to introduce legislation related to the public schools.

Fernandez, in her status report to Guthertz, stated she has attended board meetings, working sessions, and legislative meetings and will continue to do so.

The Pacific Daily News attends all school board meetings, and Fernandez has attended some, but not all of them.

The Pacific Daily News also attends some school board working sessions, including the session on Monday. Fernandez was not at that session.

Fernandez also has not attended all of the education-related round-table meetings called by the Guam Legislature.

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