OPINION | ‘What is it he hopes to accomplish?’

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HAFA Adai and Tirow People of Saipan!

I am running for a seat on the Board of Education, and you surely want to know why.  You are thinking, “What is it he hopes to accomplish?” 

The answer is to be found in who I am as a person and my experience in the nearly 50 years I have been a resident of the Northern Marianas since I first set foot on Saipan on June 30, 1974 as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

My work from 1974 to 1976 (as the people of the Northern Mariana Islands negotiated their transition to self-government) was in community development at the grass roots level in the villages on Saipan. 

After that it has been my privilege to be a part of the island’s great adventure of becoming what it is today, participating in various capacities in both the public and private sectors — as a manager in the hospitality, import, wholesale, and retail industries; political and business consultant; writer; entrepreneur; lawyer; activist; and sometimes government employee.

In 1985, I was the chief consultant to the Second Constitutional Convention.  That convention believed education was not getting the attention is deserved — that the needs of our younger generations and the foundation for our future were getting subsumed into the rough-and-tumble horse-trading and vote-grubbing of day-to-day political pandering and power plays. 

To address this situation and elevate education to a higher level, the 1985 convention proposed an amendment — ratified by CNMI voters —  to establish an autonomous Board of Education.  Thus, the Commonwealth Constitution now vests “administration of the public elementary and secondary education system of the Commonwealth” in a commissioner of education “appointed by a representative board of education,” which “board of education shall formulate policy and exercise control over the public school system” through the commissioner.  While other matters pertaining to the operations and duties of the public school system may be provided by law, it is clear that all executive authority pertaining to the Public School System is vested in the board of education and the commissioner.

In 2007, CNMI voters ratified a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the Public School System an annual budget of not less than 15% of general revenues of the Commonwealth, and in 2014 another constitutional amendment approved by the voters increased the budget guarantee to not less than 25% of the general revenues of the Commonwealth.  The people have spoken, again and again, yet PSS still has had to go to court to fight to actually receive the funding the Commonwealth Constitution says it is supposed to get.

One of the reasons I am running is my conviction that the CNMI needs a Board of Education strong enough to stand up to the power politics so prevalent in the CNMI and allow education to truly focus on the betterment of the lives of us all.  This is coupled with my belief that I have the capacity (as demonstrated by my life and the path of my career) to contribute meaningfully to achievement of this goal.

Decisions about education and schools are not something it can properly be said fall to “the discretion of the governor,” or even to the Legislature.  The Constitution gives you an elected Board of Education.  Of course, in a system of checks and balances and separation of powers, all must work together.  The most important point, however, is that no decision affecting students and schools, parents and educators, is properly taken except openly and forthrightly with the full participation and opportunity to be heard of all of these stakeholders, and through rational analysis and objective consideration of all relevant facts.

Education is for the welfare of all, and there is no place in decision-making about our schools and educational processes for narrow self-interest, personal aggrandizement, or political expediency.

At its best, education is not just something we do for a number of years and then get on with “adult” life.  I believe education should be a lifelong undertaking — more than that, it should be a lifelong experience.  The education we receive in our youth should be the foundation for a long journey of growth and enrichment throughout our lives.

This has been the practice in my own life.  Although law school was a personal goal at the time I made the decision to come to Saipan (I had to choose between accepting the Peace Corps invitation or waiting for the results of my law school applications), I did not actually go to law school until when I was turning 40 — already with a wife and three children.

I believe life is about growth, about adding value to the lives of others.  Our educational system should aim to maximize the potential of every individual.  I am about empowering the people.  We should strive not just to teach but to foster Emersonian self-reliance, individual initiative, and personal responsibility. 

The traditional 3-R’s are reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic, but to these for the current age I would add critical thinking and technological literacy.  We should strive to produce good citizens, well able to exercise to the responsibilities and realize the potentialities of democratic governance.  Creative expression and innovation, artistic appreciation, knowledge of the foundations of health and fitness and deep appreciation of duties of humanity we all owe to one another and bind us together in our common humanity all are important goals of education.

I have had young adults not long out of school express frustration to me that they weren’t taught important basic life skills in school, such as how to open a bank account or rent an apartment or buy a car, make a budget, file taxes, write a check or balance a checkbook.  We can and should do a better job of preparing young people for the practical aspects of adult life, beginning in middle school.  Each generation coming of age in our islands should be introduced to the concept of entrepreneurship, have an overall grasp of the fundamentals of business and economic activity, and receive the basics of a financial education.

Our educational system has an extraordinary and essential role at the center of the life of our society.  Looked at casually or superficially, it is easy to miss how much actually depends on its proper functioning.  Because educators take on the responsibility of caring for the island’s children during the day, their parents are free to be economically productive.  School breakfast and lunch programs help ensure proper nutrition and hence the sound physical and emotional development of our children. 

Every aspect of human endeavor in modern society depends on schools to prepare each future citizen for the functions they will be called upon to perform as adults for the welfare of all.  Shortchanging education shortchanges the entire community.

I believe in a close working relationship between public and private schools, my own children having been educated in both.  Then first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 popularized the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” which emphasizes the shared responsibility we all have for the right and successful upbringing of every child entering our community.  Their future is our future and our grandchildren’s future. 

As a member of the Board of Education, I will work to support and protect our students first and foremost.  I will strive to engage parents and most importantly listen to their needs and concerns, their aspirations for their children and their island, their ideas, values and perspectives that can help guide our course as we fashion educational programs, activities, and facilities.  Education should strengthen and uplift families and help every member of our community to grow and prosper.  And educators need our support if they are to effectively perform the tasks and responsibilities we have given them.

From birth to this day, more than two-thirds of my life has been experienced in the Northern Mariana Islands — over 40 years of commitment to the people of the CNMI beginning with my graduation from college.  When elected to the Board of Education, the priority of my commitment in that office will be simple: Students • Parents • Educators • Community.

For all these reasons, I am humbly asking for your support.  I am #1 on the Board of Education ballot in the upcoming general election, and I will greatly appreciate your vote. 

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