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Financial crisis threatens education in Puerto Rico

New York Teacher
Puerto Rico Teachers Association President Aida Diaz, standing with affected par
Puerto Rico Teachers Association President Aida Diaz, standing with affected parents amd students, decries school closures at a May press conference in Puerto Rico.    

When Carmen Feliciano, a teacher in Puerto Rico, bid her 30 students goodbye for the summer on May 15, none of them knew it would be the last time they would see each other.

On May 27, Feliciano and her colleagues were notified via email that their school in Santa Isabel, on the southern coast of the island, would close, effective immediately.

“It’s like a nightmare,” said Feliciano, a special education teacher at the school for seven years. “I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to my students.”

Feliciano’s school was one of 167 schools, with a total enrollment of 25,000 students, that were closed in May to save $7.7 million in utilities and maintenance costs.

More than 2,600 teachers have received a letter saying they were excessed, said Grichelle Toledo, the secretary general of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association — Local Union. “They’ll follow seniority in reassigning teachers, but we don’t know if they will be assigned in their neighborhoods or elsewhere,” she said.

Public schools in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, have been the collateral damage of an epic financial collapse on the island, which is straining under $120 billion in debt and pension obligations. Billionaire investors who have bought up island debt at a discount have been looking for a big payday that would give priority to redeeming their investment over the island’s well-being.

Last year President Barack Obama signed into law the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) that has enabled the island to restructure its debt. Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello appointed Julia Keleher, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant, to be the education secretary in January.

In early 2017, the PROMESA board proposed to cut costs by closing 300 schools, imposing 20-day teacher furloughs and shortening the school year by 40 days. AFT President Randi Weingarten and Aida Diaz de Rodriguez, the president of the Puerto Rico Teachers Association, appealed to the PROMESA board in an April letter to scale back the cuts. They noted that no teacher has received a raise since 2008 and beginning teachers earn just $1,750 a month, although the cost of living is 10 percent higher than on the U.S. mainland.

The UFT and its state and national affiliates have passed resolutions in support of teachers in Puerto Rico and against the austerity measures.

The teacher furloughs and the shorter school year are in limbo for now, said Nancy Morales, the AFT liaison in Puerto Rico, as the Legislature considers its options. The school closings are another matter.

Keleher sought to close 198 schools, down from the 300 proposed by the PROMESA board. The Puerto Rico Teachers Association and the AFT lobbied hard and, with the help of U.S. Rep. Nydia Velasquez, saved an additional 31 well-functioning schools, Morales said.

The push to close schools is, in part, a response to the exodus of families from the island. Education Week estimates that Puerto Rico will have 1,113 schools for about 365,000 students who are expected to return in August. A decade ago, the public schools served nearly 700,000 students. Between 2010 and 2015, the island’s education agency shuttered 150 schools in response to declining enrollment.

The reality of a dwindling population has not escaped those fighting to save public education on the island. “We’re aware that not every school can be kept open,” Toledo said.

Their issue is with the scale and speed of the closures and the disruptions caused by lack of planning. Students who attended the shuttered schools are being reassigned to other schools, sometimes far away, said Toledo. Some will have to wake up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus that will have stops at many schools, she said.

The schools that remain open have few resources for students. Teachers often purchase their own basic supplies, such as textbooks, notebooks, pencils and crayons, according to Morales. Many schools are housed in decrepit buildings. Feliciano said her school has problems with termites and a leaky zinc roof that is vulnerable to hurricanes and heavy rains.

For now, the excessed teachers are left to wait — and wonder — about their futures. Many will be assigned to schools far from their previous school and far from the students and community they know best.

But for Feliciano, the idea of leaving the profession is out of the question. “I love teaching,” she said. “I’m hoping for a new assignment.”

Related Topics: Education Funding