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Legislation to preserve federal funding under consideration

By Brett Kelman

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, June 19, 2008) - Elected officials are considering an emergency session to pass legislation they hope will prevent the loss of more than US$20 million in federal funds for the island’s public school system.

The session would focus on two bills that aim to reform the Guam Public School System and school board.

Yesterday, George Bamba, Governor Felix Camacho’s chief of staff, said the administration would talk with Speaker Judith Won Pat about expediting Bill 293 and Bill 248 in an attempt to ease concerns of the U.S. Department of Education.

In a letter released Wednesday, U.S. DOE Risk Management Service Director Philip Maestri threatened to suspend GPSS’s consolidated grant funds because of instability in the school system. To protect its funding, GPSS "must satisfactorily demonstrate its compliance with program requirements as well as its administrative capacity" by next Friday, he wrote.

Some are saying the two bills could be the answer.

Bill 293, introduced by Senator Frank Ishizaki on May 12, would transform the school board. Camacho would be given the authority to appoint half of its members.

Bill 248, introduced by Won Pat, proposes allowing some public schools to become charter schools.

Yesterday, Won Pat said she didn’t think an emergency session was necessary, but said the governor could mandate one.

"I can understand where (Camacho) is coming from, ... but I think that the mere fact that my committee is going to hear (Bills 293 and 248) indicates that, you know, we are making some strides toward trying to stabilize the management at GPSS," she said. "It’s difficult to predict. Sure we could have an emergency session, but that doesn’t mean all the senators will vote for it."

Both bills are scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday. Won Pat said input from hearings often contributes valuable amendments -- a process she wasn’t yet willing to circumvent.

Still, Won Pat said she would consider an emergency session after speaking with Maestri herself, which she hoped to do soon.

Bamba said the governor would consider demanding an emergency session on the two bills, but not until the public hearings were complete.

Board Chairman Joe San Agustin responded to Maestri’s letter with frustration yesterday. San Agustin said he felt Maestri’s concerns -- especially about the GPSS superintendent position -- were unreasonable.

Maestri expressed concern that GPSS had two superintendents and two interim superintendents in only three months. San Agustin said it was inevitable.

"When we fired (former Superintendent Luis Reyes,) we had to pick an interim superintendent," he said. "It’s not like you can just find another superintendent that day or the next. You have to open the position."

The board collected applications for three weeks and eventually chose Giovanni "Bunny" Sgambelluri to be the next superintendent. But Sgambelluri resigned June 4 because of medical reasons. His last day is Tuesday.

"We didn’t expect him to resign three weeks later. That was out of our control," San Agustin said.

San Agustin said he didn’t think the board could have asked Sgambelluri to pass a physical examination until after they hired him.

Maestri also expressed concern about the future of reading reform programs in public schools. Direct Instruction, which has been used for five years, will be replaced with three yet-unnamed reform program options.

San Agustin said the board approved the plan to offer reform program options when they passed the 2008-2013 District Action Plan on March 26. Delays have been caused by GPSS, not the board, he said.

The governor thinks Bill 293 -- which proposes the creation of a partially appointed, partially elected school board and the return of the governor’s authority over public schools -- will save federal funding.

Yesterday, Ishizaki explained his bill.

Ishizaki said he proposed the bill because the current board may violate its "one man, one vote" mandate, since the school districts don’t actively reflect the populations they represent. He said the Legislature and the court system told the board to make sure its representation is accurate, but was ignored.

Ishizaki also said the governor deserved more say in the school system. If the bill passed, the governor would appoint four of the nine board members.

Camacho asked for that power, and more, in his State of the Island Address earlier this year.

"I heard his complaints," Ishizaki said, "The governor gets called in when things are so bad he has to do a bailout. He has to shift resources, equipment, personnel and money to help bail out GPSS. ... I hear his complaint that he has no voice in the actions of the board or the actions of GPSS. He’s just a big pocketbook."

The bill previously would have granted Camacho the authority to appoint the superintendent from a list of board-approved nominees, but Ishizaki removed the section. He said he worried it would give the governor too much authority.

Yesterday, Won Pat said the power may be re-inserted into the bill during its public hearing, because it would address Maestri’s concerns about GPSS leadership. The governor could appoint a superintendent much quicker than the policy board can collect applications and hold interviews.

San Agustin said the school board could act just as quickly, if it was changed to a governing board and not a policy board. San Agustin felt Maestri’s letter was designed to push Bill 293 into law.

"They are getting involved in Guam politics," he said.

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