WASHINGTON – Following a meeting of its executive committee in the US capital, the US American Federation of Teachers. (AFT) approved yesterday to join efforts with their peers in Puerto Rico in defense of public education, government employees’ pensions, and to support a petition to minimize school closures.
“We are going to work arm-to-arm and shoulder-to-shoulder with the teachers of Puerto Rico”, said to El Nuevo Día Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, which represents 1.6 million teachers, after approving a resolution in which they express solidarity with the Teachers’ Association of Puerto Rico and the Island’s workers in times of fiscal crisis and cutbacks in public spending.
Participation by the AFT will include legal advise to the Teachers’ Association given the activation of the new territorial bankruptcy court that will be in charge of passing judgment over plans to restructure public debt, including the government’s pension system.
“The AFT rises in solidarity with the Teachers’ Association and other labor unions in the search for solutions that further our shared values of protecting public education and the rights of workers,” states the resolution, which was unanimously adopted.
Weingarten held that, as AFT president, she was already working closely with the Teachers’ Association of Puerto Rico, but that support from her union’s governing board offers the possibility of using all the resources they have available.
The intervention by the AFT comes at a time in which the process to restructure the public debt has reached the court in a bankruptcy process created by PROMESA.
For the time being, the Oversight Board which controls the financial decisions of the government of Puerto Rico has petitioned the Court to restructure the debt in general obligations –those of the central government- and those of the Puerto Rico Sales Tax Financing Corporation (COFINA, by its Spanish acronym).
But, the court, to be presided over by New York judge Laura Taylor Swain, could then have to deal with claims from the federal board to reform the pension systems.
Weingarten held that they will help the Teachers’ Association at every step of the way and will make available to the Island’s teachers the experience they have had with other fiscal crisis such as in Detroit (Michigan) and New York. “It’s not merely an act of solidarity, but rather the kind of help we can provide to improve the conditions of education, of educators, children, families, and the pensions,” Weingarten said.
Among the labor unions, the American Federation of State, Country, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) made formal with the court its intention of being a party to the case over the debt restructuring.
The resolution by US teachers refers to the fiscal plan of governor Ricardo Rosselló,certified by the federal board, that proposes cutting close to $450 million worth of subsidies from the central government to the University of Puerto Rico in the coming years. “In an attempt at solving the financial crisis, there is a proposal that would cut by 50% the funding to higher education, which would impair the accreditation processes and threaten the students’ capacity to access federal assistance,” the measure states.
The president of the Teachers’ Association, Aida Díaz, who was present at the meeting of the executive committee, said that they will avail themselves of the experience from the US federation in other fiscal crises and public debt such as Detroit’s. “They have an expertise that we don’t have and funds we’re going to need,” she said.
Díaz informed the executive committee on the plans by the Secretary of Education of Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher, of closing 174 schools.
According to the president of the Teachers’ Association, Keleher originally spoke to them about closing 102 schools.
Díaz said she immediately objected to the closing of 67 of those schools because there are no nearby schools which the students can attend.
Although they thought Keleher had accepted their concerns, the secretary ended up including them on the list, said Díaz, who indicated that at least another 32 schools which were later added to the list must also be excluded.
Weingarten and Díaz will meet today in New York with Democrat Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, as part of an effort to take before public officials the plight of the Puerto Rican educators in the face of the fiscal crisis.
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