PSS chief: Schools will reopen and serve NMI children

Rota Public School System personnel prepare learning-at-home packets

This week, public schools throughout the Commonwealth have begun distributing learning packets. On Monday, staff and personnel of Rota's Dr. Rita Hocog Inos Junior-Senior High School worked on the production of the learning materials that will be used by their students while at home during this public health emergency crisis.

PSS photo

He did not provide a specific date, but he said in the next school-year, there may be changes in policies, including hours of instruction, in light of the current situation.

The PSS team, Ada added, is now drawing up plans based on two budget scenarios — a $40 million budget and a $19 million-$21 million budget.

He said $40 million is the annual cost of running the islands’ public schools. The government’s fiscal year 2020 budget originally allotted $37 million for PSS. But with the collapse of the local economy due to Covid-19 pandemic, government revenue collections have plunged, resulting in steep, across-the-board budget cuts. As of Feb. 29, 2020, the Department of Finance informed PSS that it had already received $1.8 million more than the $11.45 million that the school system was entitled to under the revised budget. FY 2020 ends on Sept. 30, 2020.

“Once we are given the actual budget appropriated for the next fiscal year [2021], then we will plan accordingly,” Commissioner Ada said. “According to [PSS acting finance director] Kimo Rosario, we may get a $19 million to $21 million budget for the next school year. I am trying to figure out how to operate PSS with that amount of money.”

For fiscal year 2021, the governor has proposed an $18.9 million budget for PSS.

On Monday, PSS issued furlough letters to 730 of its employees, most of whom are teachers. PSS has 866 locally funded employees, but several of them were transferred to federally funded positions.

Ada said the furlough letters to some 50 teachers are also on hold because they are still finalizing the grades for secondary school students.

He said the furloughs have to be implemented to ensure PSS’ financial stability which has been significantly affected by the economic downturn as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘More radical’

Parent Kristine Wolf said an understaffed PSS is not something new, adding that it has existed long before any concerns with the pandemic. “Except now, the consequences are more radical.”

She said when her eldest son was still attending Marianas High School, he struggled to find the Advanced Placement classes he wanted to attend. “No one was teaching the [AP subject of his choice].”

Now that teachers have been furloughed, Wolf said the islands’ public education system will be negatively affected. Her four children, including a seven-year-old girl, are PSS students.

“Kids my daughter’s age will have the most trouble. Getting the individual attention they need to learn will become harder as classes swell with more students and only a few teachers. This also places an extreme amount of stress on the remaining teachers,” she added.

‘Meaningful education’

For his part, Francisco M. Sablan Middle School teacher and CNMI Educators group representative Alex Borja encouraged his co-teachers to “think proactively in order to provide a meaningful education for the children.”

He said “qualified educational professionals should already begin designing and reforming our education system so that it can be sustained no matter what the financial system is. We can make the best of this if we come back stronger rather than just returning to old norms and staying afloat.”

He said “voters must become educated on the political process as well, moving away from familial ties and voting on platforms.”

In November, he said voters will elect three Board of Education members — two on Saipan and one on Rota — three senators and 20 House members.

“Every legislator must be accountable for the negligence of recent times and explain why they should really be given another chance to right the ship,” Borja said. “We can change our society to give everyone an equal shot at thriving, and most importantly, we can invest in the students who we so desperately need to move us forward. Let us humbly admit that the youth may do it better than we’ve been able to, if we only give them a fighting chance and fill them all with hope. That is the meaning of students first, and it requires humility, love, a reset of priorities, and accountability.”

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