BOE votes 3-2 to file injunction vs. government

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THE Board of Education on Wednesday evening voted to authorize Commissioner on Education Dr. Alfred Ada to file an injunction against the cash-strapped central government.

BOE members Phillip Mendiola-Long, MaryLou S. Ada and Andrew Orsini voted yes while BOE Chairwoman Janice Tenorio and vice chairman Herman Atalig voted no.

The injunction will ask the CNMI Supreme Court to enforce its ruling in the certified question regarding the Public School System’s share of annual government revenue.

The BOE believes that the ruling meant that PSS, which is included in the across-the-board budget cuts, should instead get more funding from the central government.

It was BOE member Ada who moved to include the injunction on the agenda of Wednesday’s meeting. Her motion was approved, 3 to 2, with Mendiola-Long and Orsini supporting her proposal. Tenorio and Atalig voted no.

Before voting yes to the filing of an injunction, Mendiola-Long said he had to ask himself who was he supposed to serve — the administration or those he represents on the board.

Mendiola-Long was appointed to the BOE by the governor to fill Tinian’s vacant seat.

Mendiola-Long said he decided to “take care of the families that he was asked to take care of.”

But he also acknowledged that the injunction could “cripple” the government’s general fund.

Atalig said now is the “wrong time” to file an injunction. “We are meeting with the executive branch. We are still working with them. We know the current situation.”

He said filing an injunction would mean that PSS must fight alone. “They say it takes an entire community to educate a child. PSS cannot do it alone. Our success depends on our partnership with parents, businesses and government agencies. Teachers also need to contribute to help [ease] the economic crisis in the CNMI.”

Orsini said he had asked the administration to allow students to finish the school-year “without disruption.”

He said the 25 percent general fund allocation was not mandated by the BOE, but by the people of the Commonwealth.

Tenorio said filing an injunction is not advantageous to PSS. “Why can’t we work with the government? We have strong ties with the executive and the Legislature.”

She said an injunction will have a “ripple effect” in the entire government.

“In order for the government to pay PSS, it has to get money from other agencies whose services are also needed by people,” she added.

Dr. Yvonne Pangelinan, an associate commissioner, said they are not fighting about the economy, but for an “understanding of what education means to the community.”

She added, “We’re fighting perception. That’s the biggest thing. And I have not wanted to share this because it’s something that you only talk about within a very safe space. But the perception is, educators don’t deserve that much…. [Some people] don’t understand what it takes to run an education system.”

She said PSS personnel play several roles to serve students. “We can’t continue like this if we don’t have the support and the understanding of what it takes to run a school system for our children.”

However, she said, they are willing to go to the drawing board and accept cuts.

PSS legal counsel Tiberius Mocanu told the BOE members that the injunction will ask the CNMI Supreme Court to enforce its ruling in the certified question.

“The governor would be one of the parties to get sued because the certified question doesn’t mean that the budget changes until someone changes it,” Mocanu said. “In order to force the government to enforce it, you have to bring the lawsuit.”

But Atalig said “we all know that it is unachievable at this time to prohibit them from [imposing budget cuts].”

The injunction, he added, could hurt other government agencies and the entire community.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Press Secretary Kevin Bautista said:

“It is disappointing that some members of the Board of Education have decided to go this route after the collective agreement between the Office of the Governor, BOE, Legislature, and the Attorney General’s Office to move forward together after the recent court opinion. In light of the coronavirus outbreak, the unanticipated downturn of our economy, and our ongoing recovery period, every department, agency, and public service is affected whether we like it or not. This action by the board will further exacerbate our ongoing struggles to keep all public services afloat, including educational services and salaries of teachers at PSS.

“The truth is that multiple revenue streams of our economy have been shut down due to this unanticipated coronavirus. Our Chinese market has been shut down, and our Korean market has already seen thousands of flight cancellations, especially as the coronavirus’ presence has grown in Korea. Our administration is looking out for the entire Commonwealth as a whole — both in the public and private sectors. All areas are making cuts because there is little money coming into the CNMI. Certain members of the BOE are not being diligent in truly understanding our economic situation because when there are no tourists coming in, it means no revenue to fund services.

“Our administration, through the Department of Finance, has funded PSS and prioritized it over other agencies because we value the education of our children and the hard work of our teachers. But we know that when there’s no money coming in, cuts have had to be made across the board. Not arbitrarily. We do this just to keep public services funded at appropriate levels.

“This administration will continue to work hard to make the difficult decisions in the midst of this economic conditions and will work with the Legislature to produce revenue-generating solutions. We hope the BOE can join us in this effort to fund education, instead of posturing for the sake of convenient political points.”

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