CNMI Schools Not Likely To Get Needed Funding

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School system requests $40 million for 2014 budget

By Emmanuel T. Erediano

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, March 14, 2013) – The Northern Marianas’ Public School System (PSS) yesterday showed lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Jude U. Hofschneider the "tough times" it has been going through over the last few years, but officials admit that PSS is not likely to get the funding it needs.

PSS is asking for a $40 million budget in FY 2014.

During the PSS-Legislative Summit at the Saipan World Resort yesterday, Hofschneider and lawmakers joined education officials in separate round-table discussions regarding the current situation of students in the classrooms.

At each table, there were representatives from the Legislature, PSS administration and the schools.

The round-table discussions highlighted the tough times PSS has gone through and the even greater financial challenges that lie ahead. From $37 million in fiscal year 2003, its budget has shrunk to $31 million in the current fiscal year, despite an increasing number of enrollees every year.

In the past 10 years, PSS had 10,000 to 11,000 students each year while experiencing a decline in funding.

PSS has had to make sacrifices. Its student-to-teacher ratio is now at an all-time high and it has lost 300 full-time employees since 2003.

Chacha Junior High School in Kagman has a 43 to 1 student-to-teacher ratio; Hopwood Junior High, 41 to 1; Marianas High School, 41 to 1; and Dr. Rita Hocog-Inos Junior/High School, 37 to 1; the ideal ratio is 20 to 1.

In an interview, Education Commissioner Rita A. Sablan said they must provide elected officials with information to help them make sound decisions in enacting laws, especially with regard to the fiscal year budget.

PSS has submitted a $40 million budget proposal to the Inos administration. Of this amount, Sablan said $30 million will go to personnel in teaching positions and $4 million to pay for utilities.

Their budget request, Sablan said, will help them reduce the average class size and deal with the high cost of power, water and wastewater services provided by the Commonwealth Utilities Corp.

The summit, according to Sablan, went really well.

"I am happy that we are all able to come together today to have a dialogue and set priorities and expectations, and identify challenges and solutions. There are things that are beyond our control so we are asking them for their support," she said.

"Today, we are dialoguing so I expect them to hear us out, but if we cannot meet halfway at least we will try to meet where we can make a difference for our students. I see them having conservations about the things that are important for the PSS," she added.

Hofschneider said the administration supports PSS but, he said, the revenue projections for the next fiscal year are pretty much the same as the current fiscal year, $114 million.

"It is a good summit and the administration stands ready to work with the Legislature and PSS," he added. "But I want to point out that PSS is asking for $40 million and there are other emergencies we need to address as well."

Hofschneider said they can look into PSS’ request for a "reprieve" in utility rates.

"But again, we are only talking about PSS here. We have to be mindful that there are other agencies for which we are also responsible," he said.

Rep. Roman C. Benavente, IR-Saipan and chairman of House Education Committee, said it was great that PSS was able to bring the Senate, the House and the administration together to listen to its concerns.

A former Board of Education chairman, Benavente said he knows that the PSS budget in the current fiscal year is not enough.

But since the next fiscal year budget for CNMI is likely to be the same as the current fiscal year, "we have to look at the over-all picture in meeting priorities."

Asked if he supports PSS’ $40 million budget request, Benavente said: "I cannot decide at this point in time because we have to look at the priorities and the other budget requests. I don’t want to shortchange PSS, but at the same time I also I don’t want the hospital to be in trouble."

Speaker Joseph P. Deleon Guerrero, IR-Saipan, said the summit was an opportunity for lawmakers to not just listen but also to participate in finding solutions to PSS’ problems.

He said increasing efficiency and reducing waste should also help meet the needs of students.

Senate President Ralph DLG Torres, R-Saipan, recalled how the 17th Senate fought for the PSS budget request. The senators wanted $31 million while then-Gov. Benigno R. Fitial’s House allies were proposing just $29 million.

Sen, Jovita M. Taimanao, Ind.-Rota and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the highest priority is to address the problems with classroom size or the student-teacher ratio.

"The classes are overcrowded and with fewer resources. So the commissioner pointed out the need for a better student-to-teacher ratio so learning will come about more effectively," she said.

The administration is expected to submit its FY 2014 budget on or before April 1, 2013.

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