The Bureaucratic Scandal At Education

by John Marino

January 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

. The news report this week that Puerto Rico had to return some $40 million in federal education funds last year because it could not determine how to use the cash roils the blood every bit as much as the corruption scandal masterminded by former Gov. Pedro Rosselló’s education secretary Víctor Fajardo.

Current Education Secretary César Rey is heaping the blame on this monumental gaff on his predecessor, since it was during the Rosselló administration that the funding was first solicited.

But New Progressive Party resident commissioner candidate Luis Fortuño told a local reporter this week that he is not ready to trust the word of local Education officials, who deny any responsibility for the forfeiture of millions in badly needed funds for the island’s battered public school system.

It’s disingenuous to think the Calderón administration doesn’t share a portion of the blame for the debacle, since the money was ultimately forfeited halfway through its four-year term.

That’s especially the case given that commonwealth Education officials still appear to be just getting a grip on the situation. After insisting for days that only $18 million was returned, and calling the Associated Press report that broke the story, which cited a figure closer to $40 million, erroneous, they turned around and said it really was nearly $40 million after all.

Commonwealth Education officials said that the funds were requested in 1997 and expired in 1999, safely within Rosselló’s reign of power. But federal law stipulates that the federal government can’t reclaim the unused funds until after five years. Federal Education officials confirmed that interpretation of federal law, and said they were "working closely" with commonwealth Education officials to help Puerto Rico better manage federal funds.

But whether there was any recourse open to the Calderón administration to reclaim the funds is still unclear. The truth is, public school officials did not even know the money was there until the feds took it away from them.

How so much in federal funds, when the needs in Puerto Rico’s public schools are so great, had to be returned to the federal government because the local school system could not figure out how to spend them, or did not know the money was there, needs explaining.

By far, Puerto Rico’s record on this front is the darkest in the United States. The next closest contender, Texas, returned $11 million, and the next one after that, New Mexico, a bit over $6 million. Indeed, the commonwealth’s give-back represents nearly 30 percent of the total $124 million that U.S. states and other jurisdictions returned to the federal Department of Education last year.

Much is being made of the chaos in the commonwealth water system, and the fact that the government is retaking control of it after the private contractor it hired last year, in a 10-year, $3.8 billion contract, threw up its hands and said it could not make money and reshape the utility at the same time.

But Puerto Rico’s public school system could still rank as the most vivid example of a failure of the commonwealth government.

Both administrations share a portion of the blame.

Under Rosselló, officials could not figure out how to spend a whole lot of money, in an area with desperate needs. And under Calderón, the new officials did not even know the money was there in the first place to be spent. Both are vivid examples of a cruel failure in governance.

In monetary terms, this bureaucratic scandal far outstrips the corruption scandal under Rosselló’s Education secretary, Fajardo. He was convicted of masterminding a $4.3 million extortion scheme, although prosecutors believe it involved twice that amount. But both scandals show how completely out of control the public school system is.

Much remains to be told in this unfolding news story; for one thing, federal Education officials have not been able to provide statistics of how much the commonwealth has forfeited in previous years in federal school funds. One cringes to think how big this story might yet be.

And current Education officials promise an investigation and a report to the Senate on its findings. They have also asked the federal government to inform them of federal balances on an annual basis so they can better track federal funds.

Gov. Calderón expressed confidence this week that the commonwealth government will be able to turn around its water utility when it reverts from private management in a few months.

But the history of that agency provides ample warning signs that the road to recovery for the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority won’t be so easy.

The failure of the public school system under both New Progressive and Popular Democratic party administrations is an equally urgent crisis that this administration, and subsequent ones, needs to confront head on.

John Marino, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net

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