The U.S. government's decision to freeze $1.535 billion in federal funds for the Puerto Rico Department of Education requires the immediate action of local authorities.
The Puerto Rican government must start conversations with federal authorities to express the imperative need for those funds. Therefore, we support the local authorities' intention to insist on a partial disbursement.
While opposing the total freezing of a significant amount of money intended to the well-being of children in the public education system, the government also has to make adjustments that ensure the redirection of state resources to maintain essential services in the Department of Education.
It is time to take action to ensure that student services are not paralyzed in the short term. Terminating contracts and avoiding not essential spending should also be considered. Education Secretary Eligio Hernández must make firm decisions and act without delay.
The U.S. government demands the appointment of an external entity to manage federal education funds on the island. And that demand requires the Department of Education to start a Request for Proposals process to eventually appoint a private trustee. The process will take time, according to the head of Education, so in practical terms, there is an urgent need for funds to prevent the paralysis of essential programs.
In that sense, the alternatives proposed by the local government to its federal counterpart to swiftly address the situation, are wise. These alternatives include authorizing access to funds before the appointment of a trustee; that the Department of Education can receive those funds intended to areas related direct services to students; or that it receives only the necessary funds to ensure services until the end of the school year.
The administrative challenge posed by the immediate freezing of federal disbursements calls for a strong administrative effort to identify state resources that can be redirected to payments in Education, as well as well-documented proceedings to achieve the partial release of federal funds for the rest of the current year. The Education Secretary has already indicated that they have already identified $53, resulting from the redistribution in the current budget. Those funds will be allocated for children with special educational needs. As it is known, this important area has budget deficiencies so it must be a priority.
The decision to freeze federal funds for education is by no means a fortuitous event. It is the result of sloppiness and negligence in addressing federal claims for oversight as well as funds mismanagement. The federal government ordered the appointment of an external fiscal agent back in July and nothing has been done about it yet. The attitude of waiting for manna to fall from heaven should no longer find space in our reality.
The decision is also the product of the criminal acts in that department over the years, which is a truly tragic background for our students. The arrest of former Secretary Julia Keleher for alleged acts of corruption just three months ago, as well as the arrest of another former Secretary, Víctor Fajardo, undermined the confidence of the federal authorities in Education.
It is now up to the local government to undertake the difficult task of restoring the lost credibility, not only before the federal government but before the eyes of all those citizens who wish to serve Puerto Rico as teachers. If the island regains confidence in its public education system, it will also contribute to stopping the exodus of teachers.
Education represents the future of a country. It is up to all of us, especially authorities, to protect education as the precious and irreplaceable resource it is.