COMMUNITY EXPRESSES FRUSTRATION OVER CNMI SCHOOL ISSUES

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Power still off as parents plead to prioritize education

By Haidee V. Eugenio

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, March 8, 2012) – In the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI), close to 100 public school teachers, principals, education officials, parents, and students trooped to Capital Hill yesterday afternoon, not only to air their concerns about the negative impacts of not having power at school administrative offices, but also to demand solutions from the administration and lawmakers who have always promised to prioritize education every election season.

After four hours, most of the Public School System (PSS) principals, teachers, other officials, and parents left the building without assurance from the Legislature that power will be restored to PSS administrative offices today or tomorrow.

Some parents and principals said the leadership – both the Executive Branch and the Legislature – "failed" the students for allowing their learning to be disrupted by power disconnections that Capital Hill officials could have prevented.

"Own up to your promises," Fausia Dela Cruz, a parent of three children attending public schools, told lawmakers.

Dela Cruz, who couldn't hold back tears as she narrated her concerns for her children's safety and welfare, said officials always promise that education will always be priority but this has not been the case.

"I am very concerned and disappointed because today we can't come up with a solution. We failed the students because we didn't deliver on our promises. Election is coming up. I bet many of you will promise 'education first.' Every election you promise that. Here we are today," she added.

Another parent of a public school student, Juanette Atalig, asked lawmakers: "How long will it take for you to decide [on the loan bill]? How fast can you get it passed? I don't want to leave without knowing what kind of solution you have tomorrow."

[PIR editor’s note: Hopwood Junior High, Koblerville Elementary, and Tanapag Elementary School on Saipan will remain closed until administrators can finalize contingency plans, hopefully completed so classes may resume by Friday. Staff and faculty at public schools have been advised to find ways to work around the power outages in schools, using libraries, empty classrooms and other vacant spaces to keep schools moving.]

House Speaker Eli Cabrera (R-Saipan) called for a 9am session today mainly to act on Rep. Ray Basa's (Cov-Saipan) $11.58 million line of credit bill that the Senate substituted not only to help the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. but also PSS.

Board of Education member Herman Guerrero, BOE chair MaryLou Ada, PSS' Ed Tenorio and other education officials separately said the whole issue is partly caused by the central government's failure to remit some $9 million owed to PSS.

"We could have avoided this [power cutoff] if we have received from the central government. This disruption is creating more problems. The disruption caused by disconnecting power to PSS costs us $15,000 an hour," Tenorio told lawmakers.

Press secretary Angel Demapan, when asked for comment, said the Fitial administration would like to see an accounting of this $9 million that PSS is claiming to be not remitted by the central government.

"The figure may be part of the budget appropriations for the fiscal year, but like all other government agencies, the appropriations exist on the budget worksheets, however, the real problem continues to be cash flow – actual money in the bank. There’s a fine line between appropriations based on projected revenue versus actual revenue, or physical cash, that actually gets generated into the general fund," Demapan said.

House Ways and Means Committee chair Ray Basa (Cov-Saipan) at one point blamed PSS for not prioritizing utility payments to avoid disconnection of power, and his remark didn't sit well with some school principals.

Lawmakers blamed either the House or the Senate for not acting on the $11.58 million line of credit bill immediately, regardless of whose version of the bill it was.

Senate floor leader Pete Reyes (R-Saipan), the only senator in the House gallery, was the only one who accepted part of the blame.

"I'm just as guilty as everybody else, because I take part of the blame because I'm a member of the Legislature, despite my personal feelings about this," he said.

House members said they did their duty by passing a budget that would allow PSS to meet its maintenance-of-efforts requirements, but it's another thing when the central government does not remit all the money to PSS.

Leila Staffler, vice principal at Kagman High School, said 75 percent of their student population rely on the free school meal program for breakfast and lunch, which they don't have in their homes.

She talked about hundreds of students not being able to eat breakfast and lunch because classes were suspended.

PSS acting Commissioner Glenn Muna said only three schools will not open today because their contingency plans have yet to be completely put together.

Boni Pangelinan, principal at San Vicente Elementary School, said with or without power, they will be able to hold classes today but elected leaders should not allow schools to go on without power at their offices.

Other principals echoed Pangelinan's sentiments, considering that students are supposed to be taught 21st century learning and not go back to the '80s and '90s when technology was not yet so much part of learning.

After four long hours, school officials said they and lawmakers could go on forever discussing the issue but what matters is lawmakers' concrete solution to ensuring CUC gets paid so it can restore power not only to PSS but also to the hospital.

[PIR editor’s note: Meanwhile, CUC head Utu Abe Malae has maintained his firm stance on allowing access to electric power. Despite the emergency, no payments were received from either the PSS or the Commonwealth Healthcare Corporation (CHC) for overdue power bills, so electricity is still limited to non-critical areas for each. Classrooms are still being supplied with electricity and water, but administrative spaces are still limited.]

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