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PUERTO RICO HERALD
La Fortaleza Hopefuls: Education Is Island's Biggest Test
By Kevin Mead
January 23, 2004
With their campaign platforms slowly taking shape gubernatorial candidates Pedro Rossello and Anibal Acevedo Vila continued to trumpet education as the most pressing issue facing Puerto Rico. In speeches before the Chamber of Commerce, both said improving the island's public education system was the key to Puerto Rico's future economic development.
Both also agreed that a multi-million dollar kickback scheme orchestrated by convicted former Education Secretary Victor Fajardo was not solely to blame for the sorry state of public schools. Acevedo Vila signaled that there was plenty of blame to go around, and said Rossello bears much of the responsibility for school woes for not delivering on key planks of his previous education platforms.
Rossello went on to tout positive developments at the embattled department over the course of his two previous terms in La Fortaleza, citing bilingual education programs, community schools and a push for modernization including laptop computers for all teachers and getting schools online.
The New Progressive Party candidate reiterated his charge that his rival Acevedo Vila is trivializing the issue by focusing on the Fajardo scandal, an embarrassing chapter that Rossello is obviously eager to put behind him and the voting public.
Pledging the largest investment ever in education if he returned to La Fortaleza in November, Rossello is clearly hoping voters will be willing to close the book on the embezzlement scheme. With Fajardo in jail and the Education contractors implicated in the case out of the courtroom and off the front pages -- at least for now -- Rossello may get his wish.
The kickback case gained further perspective with the revelation that Puerto Rico had to return $40 million in federal education funds last year because they were not used within the established time frame. Originally assigned in 1997, the funds sat untapped in a special account in Washington until federal officials decided to reclaim them. Fajardo is doing time for bilking more than $4 million which should have gone to public school students and has been ordered to pay restitution.
Meanwhile, accountability for the return of nearly 10 times that amount in funds earmarked for education has been far less clear. Department officials say they were never informed by the federal government that the money would be reclaimed if not assigned to specific programs. To be sure nearly every U.S. state "lost" federal funds in the same way last year, but Puerto Rico's share of the unused funds added up to 30 percent of the entire national total. Who knows how much has been lost in previous years? Not the Education Department.
That the availability of $40 million could slip under Education's radar is indicative of an agency that is, and has been, in need of some serious tweaking. With an overall budget of some $2.7 billion -- with more than a third coming from Washington -- and 73,000 employees including about 30,000 non-teaching employees, the top-heavy department is already perhaps the most bloated agency in a swollen commonwealth government.
With details still lacking as to what Rossello and Acevedo Vila would do with a hiked Education budget it is unclear that more money will right the foundering public school system.
The top two gubernatorial candidates also reiterated their positions on the island's shipping industry as a key mover of the economy. Acevedo Vila would keep plans for a massive transshipment complex centered in the south coast city of Ponce while earmarking soon to be vacant lands at the Naval Station Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba for tourism development. He said economic gains depend on focusing on exports of goods and services and making government more agile through decentralization and regionalization.
Meanwhile, Rossello called for the decentralization of the shipping sector, proposing to build a rail system to connect the various ports facilities around the island.
With traffic-snarled roadways falling further into disrepair the rail system proposal has some merit. With passenger trains added to the tracks the railway could also serve to promote internal tourism and would likely be used by off-island visitors daunted by driving the island's cratered and poorly marked roads.
On the other hand, Puerto Rican Independence Party gubernatorial candidate Ruben Berrios called for an overhaul the island's current economic model.
He argued that the island's economy will only continue to feel the pinch of 1950s -era policies adopted under Operation Bootstrap. Among his suggestions was the granting of tax breaks to foreign corporations to lure more overseas investment. Berrios said this could be done by lobbying Congress to amend Section 901 of the U.S. tax code on foreign corporations.
In other news, House Speaker Carlos Vizcarrondo called for a referendum to be held duirng the November general election to let voters decide whether or not to convene a constituent assembly as the vehicle to resolve Puerto Rico's status issue. The proposal was lauded by the PIP's Berrios who said the referendum can be adopted over New Progressive Party opposition. The NPP has championed a status-resolution centered in Washington. With the White House task force on status up and running again, the NPP says any movement on status depends on working in Washington and within the U.S. courts if necessary.
Gov. Calderon, meanwhile, appeared determined to dodge the sticky status issue altogether, saying the referendum on a constituent assembly should be pushed back until 2005 after her term ends.
Meanwhile, the trial of Carlos Pesquera and three other NPP leaders on felony "flag-riot" charges got under way in local court. The court case promises to be far less entertaining than the June 2002 incident that spawned it when Pesquera led a charge to plant a U.S. flag in the lobby of the Women's Affairs Advocates Office in Old San Juan after agency chief Maria Dolores Fernos ordered that only the Puerto rico flag be flown. Pesquera and NPP Electoral Commissioner Thomas Rivera Schatz, Rep. Edwin Mundo and former NPP Rep. Leo Diaz face up to three years in prison of convicted.
So far, the action has come outside the courtroom with Mundo filing a motion saying legislative immunity shielded him from appearing while the House was in session. The judge and House Speaker Vizacarrondo hammered out a deal where Mundo would be required in court only on alternating days when the Legislature is not in session.
With jury selection not yet completed, the trial promises to drag on well into this election year. And perhaps beyond, after Mundo announced plans file federal lawsuits against Calderon and Fernos for personal damages to himself and his family.
Kevin Mead is assistant city editor of The San Juan Star. He can be reached at email@example.com