Schools in Puerto Rico reopened this month. (Teresa Canino Rivera)

Puerto Rico Education Department has now access to $912 million -frozen since 2019- after federal Education Secretary Miguel Cardona authorized the immediate use of those federal funds

The funds include $390 million allocated under the federal economic stimulus bill to address the coronavirus pandemic, known as the Cares Act. Cardona also authorized the use of $522 million in federal funds approved the island’s schools for fiscal year 2019, as part of the budget to support the education of students below the poverty level and those in Special Education, among others.

“There’s $912 million that will be available for Puerto Rico, to help Puerto Rican students go back to school safely and to have access to those programs that we know they need to recover, not just from the pandemic, but from Hurricane María and the earthquakes. They need a lot of support, and I’m pleased that we now have the opportunity to provide that support to Puerto Rico and to work with Puerto Rico to ensure that students have the best education possible,” Cardona said in a telephone interview with El Nuevo Día.

The $390 million under the Cares Act is divided into about $340 million directly allocated to the local Department of Education for public and private schools, and about $47 million for educational projects that will be managed by the Governor’s Office. With the federal government’s authorization last year, Puerto Rico has used $11 million of the original appropriation.

Puerto Rico’s access to federal funds for educational purposes has been limited since 2019 due to restrictions imposed by the Donald Trump administration. Back then, Puerto Rico was imposed special conditions for the use of federal funds allocated to the education system, including the hiring of a trustee (“third-party fiduciary agent”) due to a history of mismanagement in the local Education Department. Restrictions were issued weeks before former Secretary Julia Keleher, an advisor, and several contractors were arrested for corruption.

Cardona acknowledged that the authorization of federal funds comes partly since the hiring of the trustee will be completed this week with the agreement between Education and the consulting firm Álvarez & Marsal.

Negotiation with the firm was completed a few weeks ago, and the Oversight Board has already approved the hiring, which will amount to at least $79.7 million over two years.

“The funding and support were long overdue, but the contract with the fiduciary agent will be completed this week, and we wanted to announce that Puerto Rico is high on the priority list. We are ensuring that the funds that our students require in Puerto Rico are available to them as soon as possible. So, yes, the contract will be signed this week, and we will make sure that, throughout the country, not just Puerto Rico, funds go to those who need them most,” he said.

The federal official said the agency he heads will support the island in the “efficient and effective” use of the money, including the development of strategies to safely reopen schools amid the coronavirus pandemic and maximize in-person school time.

In a letter to Governor Pedro Pierluisi, Cardona said that the federal Education Department recognizes and appreciates Puerto Rico’s efforts to implement greater accountability for the use of federal funds and progress toward signing a contract to procure the services of a trustee. He also added that his agency will continue to provide Puerto Rico with access to the necessary funds until the trustee is in place,” Cardona added in a letter sent to Governor Pedro Pierluisi.

Last week, Pierluisi anticipated that the federal government would authorize the use of federal funds that had been frozen, but estimated that the amount would be around $1.8 billion.

The governor recalled yesterday that, earlier this month, he sent a letter to the federal secretary requesting immediate access to the Cares Act funds.

“Today marks another milestone in our progress as we continue to provide our students the necessary resources for in-person learning and our teachers the means to provide instructional time and safely reopen our schools,” the governor said.

“Our students have been through too much, from the 2017 hurricanes to the earthquakes to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they deserve a semblance of normalcy. These resources will provide funds to meet the needs of students on the island,” the chief executive added in a press release.

Full reopening

Cardona explained that these funds should primarily serve to ensure that schools can safely reopen amid the pandemic to resume in-person classes. On March 10, fewer than 100 public schools - out of a total of 856 - received students for the first time since March 2020 to start with a hybrid model.

“As the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico faces the challenges of the pandemic and continues to recover from the hurricanes and the more recent earthquakes, the (federal) Department understands the urgency to access vital Federal Education funds to meet the needs of Puerto Rican students who are experiencing compounded trauma. The Department is committed to partnering with and supporting Puerto Rico in the efficient and effective use of Department funds to serve Puerto Rico’s students, including safely reopen schools and maximize in-person instructional time,” Cardona said.

By press time, no local Education Department official was available for an interview regarding the authorization of these funds.

Designated Education Secretary Elba Aponte Santos yesterday limited herself to posting a message on social media to thank the governor’s efforts on behalf of students and schools, as well as leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and the Puerto Rico Teachers Association.

In the last term, Education submitted to the federal agency a plan for the use of Cares Act funds, with strategies to provide technological equipment to schools, hire additional personnel and develop programs to strengthen learning. Some of these initiatives have already been implemented with funding from other sources.

Keeping an eye on the island

Cardona, of Puerto Rican descent, said he has met with Pierluisi and has “confidence” in his plans for education on the island. In a conversation with El Nuevo Día, the federal Education Secretary said he will appoint an official as a liaison between the agency and Puerto Rico.

“I will be assigning someone directly from my office to serve as a liaison with Puerto Rico because I do care about this. I want to make sure that we can allocate resources where they are most needed, and I am confident that they want the same thing, so we are going to work together to make that happen,” he said.

However, the federal Education Secretary did not advance whether he could reverse the determination made by his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, to impose a trustee to the local agency.

“We have a strong team that is working closely, reviewing the requirements... But this is what we want to announce today (yesterday), that we are confident in our relationship with Puerto Rico, that we are confident that what our students need right now is support, technical support. Our teachers need support right now, and we are going to make sure that we do that. They can’t wait any longer. They can’t continue to talk about reopening schools without providing the support they need,” he said.

Cardona did not specify what will happen with the funds allocated to the island after fiscal year 2019.

“A big part of the allocation is funds that have been withheld from 2019, funds that are most needed, I should say, so we’re going to make sure that comes through, and we will continue to support Puerto Rico and make sure they have access to the funds they deserve,” he said.

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