Puerto Rico begins implementing cuts, school closings to address crisis

by | May 16, 2017 | Puerto Rico | Comments

The debt crisis in Puerto Rico is taking a bite out of education with 178 schools to be closed after the last day of the school year. The closures will affect around 27,000 students. The move comes as Puerto Rico’s decision making over its budget crisis was turned over to the Financial Oversight & Management Board. Julia Keleher was confirmed as Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico in January, and the decision to close the schools is part of her plan to decrease government spending.

The decision is highly controversial for a number of reasons. First, many applaud the decision because of the effect of the exodus on the school districts. The debt crisis has led close to 450,000 Puerto Ricans to leave the territory in search of better opportunities over the last decade. This has led to a steady decline in school enrollment. Some schools are at less than half capacity, yet the government still pays for water, electricity, and other essential services for these locations. Other schools are infested with termites or rats, while others are rotting. Some suffer from a surplus of teachers, while other schools are underserved.

Ms. Keleher claims that her plans for school closures and consolidations are based on data and should save the government lots of money, and open up more opportunities for students. She says that by combining two schools that, for instance, cost the government $1 million each to run, when neither are at full capacity, the new school would be able to afford better computer labs and equipment that would serve twice as many students. Her plan will save the government $7 million in water and power bills. Based on her data and research it sounds like a no-brainer.

However, local Puerto Ricans are highly concerned about the plans. The effects of the school closures and mergers are more complicated than a spreadsheet of data and potential savings. The intricacies of the ways different people’s lives will be impacted is much more complex. While Keleher promises that teachers will not be fired, teachers’ unions are still worried about many of their teachers. Puerto Rico has 5,000 of teachers that work on year-to-year contracts. One teachers’ union believes, that, according to the numbers, it seems like thousands of those contracts won’t be renewed. Their fears are not unsubstantiated, as, Ms. Keleher has stated that many contracts will not be renewed, and extra savings will come as some teachers become frustrated by the situation and quit.

Others worry that the plans don’t take into account the families and social realities of the islands. Some students will be moved to schools that they potentially can’t get to. One proposal merges a school that was serving a local public housing project, with a school over ten minutes away by highway. Families living in the housing project do not all have cars, potentially creating big problems for these families. Another proposal sets to combine schools from neighboring communities that have been longtime rivals, allegedly ignoring socio-cultural sensitivities that could have been avoided had she visited the schools and consulted with the locals on which schools to combine. Many parents and faculty members are incensed by the fact that she chose which schools to close based on data alone, without visiting the facilities.