Educación proyecta que 64 escuelas públicas necesitan trabajos mayores de construcción para reparar los daños causados por el huracán María. (GFR Media)

Keeping reliable spending records, contractor evaluations, estimates, and bids will be vital to completing, without further obstacles or questionings, the reconstruction and improvement of public schools through the reallocation of some $2.3 billion granted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“Everyone hates paperwork, it is annoying, it is hard to track, you have to set up systems... But documentation is the heart of FEMA’s program,” said Bradley Nichols, a partner in Insurance and Federal Claims Services at the consulting firm EY Americas.

Last September, FEMA announced a multi-million dollar allocation to rebuild Puerto Rico’s schools and repair address the damage caused by Hurricane María in 2017, funds that will have to be invested in the education system over five to seven years. Education has also received other multi-million dollar allocations from FEMA for emergency and mitigation works, as well as recovery funds that Congress approved under the Restart program.

For those funds to have an “exponential impact” on the entire education system, Puerto Rico must learn from the lessons and challenges faced by other jurisdictions that had to rebuild their schools after natural disasters, said the Oversight Board Executive Director, Natalie Jaresko, during the webinar

“Restructuring and Revitalizing after a Disaster: A Vision for PR’s Public School,” held yesterday.

Margarita Mosquera, Director of Community Services Infrastructure at the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction, and Resilience (COR3) noted that several agencies, led by the Department of Education, are working on the initial plan for reconstruction works, which should be ready by December 22.

Mosquera suggested that the reconstruction plan could lead to the closure of public schools, but did not rule out the possible construction of schools.

“One of the things we must consider, based on the mistakes we have made in the past, is that we must integrate the communities into this plan. It’s important to work with people, as we established before, to understand what the needs are, the geography. We have small schools in very remote areas, and it is a challenge for our population to reach other areas, and we have to work those routes if those schools are not necessary in those areas,” Mosquera said.

We have a lot already structured and we only have to make final determinations. Now, of course, we´ll have a new administration, but we are ready for the new team to make decisions within the first two to three months," he added.

Mosquera was the only local government official on the panel. There was no participation from the Department of Education in the webinar.

“Schools have been damaged over and over again, but the real loss is not in business capital, but in human capital,” Jaresko said, focusing on the constant interruptions in the education system since 2017, first due to the hurricanes and then due to the earthquakes and this year’s coronavirus pandemic.

“Instead of looking at how to divide this money equally among 850 schools, we should consider what changes have the greatest impact on students and families. We can start by looking at how the Department of Education can strategically invest this $2.3 billion to improve schools across the island, respond to the island´s changing demographics, and meet the demands for new skills and approaches to education needed at this time,” added the Board Executive Director.

Implementing and using reliable information and documentation systems has been a constant challenge for Education for decades. Just two months ago, it was revealed that the agency inappropriately paid $84 million to employees and former employees due to failures with its attendance and payroll system.

In a two-panel webinar, former Houston school district superintendent and current New York City Department of Education Chancellor Richard Carranza, along with New York City School Construction Authority President Lorraine Grillo and California Project Frog Vice President of Architecture and Engineering Dara Douraghi described how they have managed school infrastructure revitalization plans. Meanwhile, architect Jimmarie Bou reviewed the latest major investment project in school infrastructure on the island, the Siglo XXI (21st Century) Schools project.