GUAM’S STRAPPED EDUCATION SYSTEM TO CLOSE SCHOOL

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GUAM’S STRAPPED EDUCATION SYSTEM TO CLOSE SCHOOL Government to save $157,000 a year

By Brett Kelman HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, July 1, 2011) – Guam's smallest public school won't reopen when summer ends, in an effort to cut costs for the cash-strapped school system, despite opposition from the neighboring community.

F.Q. Sanchez Elementary School, a tiny campus along the coast in Umatac, will be closed and students will shift to nearby Merizo Elementary School, according to a decision made by the Guam Education Board yesterday.

Less than a dozen staff from the school will be transferred to fill vacancies at other campuses, said Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Taling Taitano. Principal Derrick Santos, who has been splitting duties between F.Q. Sanchez and Merizo Martyrs Memorial Elementary, will now focus only on Merizo.

According to an audit released in 2009, the closure of this school is expected to save the school system about $157,000 per year.

The idea of closing the school has been discussed for years, but never embraced by the school board until recently. A previous school board has vowed to keep the school open and the current school board backed off on the idea in May after a crowd of Umatac residents rallied at a board meeting.

Since May, the school system has studied ways to cut the F.Q. Sanchez budget in an effort to make the tiny campus affordable. That didn't pan out, so the board ultimately decided yesterday to close the school. The 2011-2012 school starts Aug. 9.

During yesterday's board meeting, five board members voted in favor of closing the school and three voted against it.

The five supporting members were all new board members who took the reins this year after being appointed by Gov. Eddie Calvo. The three opposing members -- Joe San Agustin, Ron Ayuyu and Jose Cruz -- are incumbents from the past board, who continued their opposition.

After the meeting yesterday, Ayuyu said he couldn't support a closure that was opposed so passionately by the Umatac community.

The decision weighed in the mind against the heart, he said, and the pride of Umatac had won him over.

"It should remain open, because it's the only school in their village," Ayuyu said. "Instead, I voted that we should try to decrease their budget ... That's what influenced my decision -- I think about the stakeholders."

Mary Sanchez, the outgoing president of the F.Q. Sanchez Parent-Teacher Organization, said the closure was far from final.

Sanchez attended the school as a young girl, and her mother was once a teacher there. Her daughter will not go to Merizo Elementary, Sanchez said.

"That will not happen," she said yesterday. "I will not allow it to happen. ... We are still going to fight for our school to stay open."

Sanchez said she had already begun contacting the governor's office in an effort to reverse the school board's decision. In December, when he was campaigning, Calvo promised the community in Umatac that the school would stay open, Sanchez said.

When questioned about the school closure yesterday, Calvo spokesman Troy Torres said the governor had no statutory authority over the school.

"(Calvo) personally did not want to see the school close down," Torres said. "If it were up to him, he would have kept it open, but he respects the board's authority. He will do whatever he can to ensure these students receive the attention and education they deserve under the new arrangement."

Another Umatac resident, Julia Quinata, said she would also protest the school board's decision. Quinata went to F.Q. Sanchez decades ago, and although she has no children at the school, she still volunteers there often.

The village of Umatac has a powerful sense of pride in its only campus, and that is worth the expense, she said.

"We will be very sad (if it closes,)" Quinata said. "Because there are a lot of generations that went to our school, and even though they live out of the village now, they still get in touch (with) our school. Of all the schools in the island, why close F. Q. Sanchez? There are not enough reasons."

According to Pacific Daily News files, it cost about $18,000 per year to educate a pupil at F.Q. Sanchez -- three times as much as the average Guam public school. A combination of senior teachers and a small student body boost this number, Taitano said.

"Because they have a small number of students, and the staff that work there have been working there for years, their costs are high," Taitano said. "So with a small number of students, and a large expense, it just works out that way. In a bigger school, you have more kids to spread that cost around.

Evergreen audit

The closure of the F.Q. Sanchez was recommended in 2009 by independent auditor Evergreen Solutions, which studied the local school system for ways to cut costs.

In addition to the cost savings, the closure of F.Q. Sanchez would end a "potentially dangerous" situation in Umatac, where students cross a "well-traveled" road to reach their playground, the audit states. The campus is built on a bluff, so the only space for the playground is across the street.

According to the audit, the F.Q. Sanchez campus is about 11,000 square feet and was built in 1953, but the Merizo Elementary campus is three times as big and 13 years younger.

Merizo is also underutilized, and could easily absorb the F.Q. Sanchez students, Taitano said. The schools are a five-minute bus ride apart, she said.

Taitano said the school system plans to return the campus to GovGuam, who could then transform the school into something else that the people of Umatac could use.

According to the audit, if the campus is sold -- possibly to someone who wants to open a private school or office -- it is estimated that GovGuam could earn about $1.2 million.

The property has a great deal of potential, especially to someone with the right idea, said Nick Captain, president, Captain Real Estate Group.

The building is in a culturally rich, historically significant, "stunning location," Captain said, and GovGuam could lease it to multiple tenants to create some sort of tourism-based economic hub in Southern Guam. The building was even designed by world-renowned architect Richard Nuetra, Captain said.

"It could be a trophy type of asset that takes advantage of its incredible unique historical location, and the fact that it's one of the architecturally significant buildings on the island," he said.

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