Editorials 2019-January-10

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Just a drill, for now

THE education commissioner said he and his team were just being “pro-active” when they presented three austerity proposals to the BOE finance committee on Tuesday. PSS has a plan in place, he said. Just in case. Well and good.

Based on the statements made about the Public School System’s FY 2020 budget as reported by Variety on Wednesday and Thursday, here’s where things stand:

• The central government will remit the total amount of the PSS budget which is based on the constitutionally mandated 25 percent of the general revenues as defined by the central government and supported by the AG’s legal opinion. (The BOE disagrees with that opinion and has, with the central government, submitted a certified question to the CNMI Supreme Court which has yet to announce its decision.)

• The quarterly remittances to PSS are based on actual collections, and so the first allotment will be 23 percent (instead of 25 percent), but the succeeding allotment will be more than 25 percent, etc. The central government said it will provide PSS its allotted FY 2020 funding. If it is not enough — especially because of the FY 2018 pay raises PSS implemented — the BOE and PSS will have to do what they must do to stay on budget. The central government says that doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the salary of teachers.

• But personnel pay is about 90 percent of the PSS budget. If — if — budget cuts have to be made, what else can PSS possibly cut?

The central government said it suggested adjustments to the administrative or central PSS payroll levels. The PSS leadership, for their part, presented three specific austerity proposals or schedules to the BOE’s finance committee on Tuesday. All involve pay cuts. Implementing schedules 1 and 2 — a reversion to the previous salary levels of teachers, support staff, administrators and other managers, directors, etc. — should result in an annual savings of close to $8 million. Moreover, PSS will have sufficient funds for school operations.

• No one, however, likes pay cuts. And the PSS austerity proposals are subject to the approval of the five members of the BOE elected by voters — who include teachers, school staff, administrators and their family members.

What are the recommendations of those opposed to the hypothetical pay cuts?

• Shut down schools.

• “Fight.”

• Hope for a favorable ruling in the certified question pending in the local high court.

• The central government should reduce its spending; the governor should stop hiring additional personnel and should stop or reduce his off-island travels.

Right now, it seems that the most realistic “solution” in this hypothetical scenario is the adoption of austerity schedules 1 and 2: pay cuts for all PSS officials and personnel except those receiving $23,000 a year.

But clearly the worst idea, hypothetical or not, is shutting down schools which will disrupt student learning. “We care so much for the education of our students. So we will suspend their classes.”

No. The rest of the BOE members should not even consider it.

As for “fighting” — who and how exactly?

The suggestion that the central government should reduce its spending so more funding can be allotted to PSS is a legitimate proposal. But it must be specific. And it probably must be introduced as legislation or as an initiative. How much are the budget cuts that should be imposed on the central government? What are the agencies, programs etc. whose funding levels and/or personnel should be reduced? What public services have to be curtailed or discontinued? Should there be a ban on most if not all government off-island travels? What about inter-island travels? Who are the central government officials and personnel whose salaries may be cut? Who will lose their jobs?

Equally important: who will introduce such measures?

Unless someone actually takes that first step, then we can only surmise that all this “tough talk,” however thrilling it is for some folks, is just more of the same old talk that can elicit a lot of “shares” and “likes” on social media, and nothing else.

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