Guam politicians have said on the campaign trail over many local elections that public school children are at the top of their priorities.
Once elected into public office, voters then belatedly realize that the politicians who won their votes didn't really mean what they said. Or at least they didn't take their campaign promise to heart.
Today's funding shortfall at the Guam Department of Education is an example of a promise that has been – well, broken.
GDOE is scrambling to fill a $25 million shortfall so the department can adequately provide services to about 28,000 students. Guam DOE's challenges are enormous year after year because the budget it receives often leaves minimal funding for maintenance and upkeep of mostly rundown, outdated schools as well as supplies. Payroll takes up the bulk of its spending.
When the governor allowed the fiscal year 2022 budget to lapse into law, GDOE’s budget level was at $206 million. Education officials had anticipated a smaller-than-requested budget - that’s nothing new for the public school system - but there was an additional $4.7 million cut, leading GDOE officials to characterize this year’s lean budget as “worse than ever.”
About $187 million of this fiscal year's GDOE budget is earmarked for personnel costs, leaving roughly $20 million for essential operations. This shortfall has opened discussions on whether the local education department can use some of the COVID-19 federal funds to help local schools survive the school year. We hope GDOE gets federal approval to use pandemic aid funding for operations, but if its request is rejected, our public schools and our public school students will suffer.
We all know that $20 million for one year to run dozens of public schools that serve thousands of schoolchildren is not going to be enough.
Most senators know or should be aware of this. The governor's office as well as the administration's budget and finance officials are too entrenched in the system to say they didn't know.
Knowing that the finances in GovGuam are limited, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic nearly wiping out the more than $2 billion tourism industry, which is not expected to fully recover for at least the next two years, any surprise funding – you'd think – would be allocated toward the core functions of our local government. And public education has been identified to be in the top three along with health care and public safety.
But that hasn't been the case – even when a new funding well has opened up.
There is a projection in GovGuam that the federal government will provide $60 million a year, on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars the federal government provides year after year, to GovGuam. The $60 million would help the local government after years of GovGuam-shouldered tax refund payments for local taxpayers who claim the federal earned income tax credit or EITC.
What senators and the administration have done with this future EITC money is commit a big chunk of it toward annual debt payments for the billion-dollar new Guam Memorial Hospital project and related mental health and public health facilities – a project that's being billed as a medical "campus."
While health care spending and borrowing can be justified, to some extent – but maybe not as a billion-dollar expense – the recent decision by senators and the administration to approve committing $5 million out of the EITC money for one year, and after that $5 million a year from GovGuam's general purse toward building a new prison facility does raise the question of skewed priorities.
It's true that public safety is also a top priority for GovGuam. But when it comes to public safety, funding support should first go to the cash-strapped Guam Police Department, which is at the front line of the various crimes on the streets.
To the everyday Guamanians, choosing to fund debt payments for a bigger and better prison that will take years to build while the priority needs in public education are here, right now, is head-shaking. Our schoolchildren are being relegated to the back of the bus in priorities.
One of the justifications for the new prison was that the way the prison is configured now, it's easy to throw drugs and other contraband over the fence. Would it make sense to fix the fence issue and reform prison enforcement to take care of the problem right away – instead of building a massive project that commits taxpayers for decades of debt payments?
Sometimes, when people are in positions of public power and trust, they can get caught in the weeds of legislating and policy decision-making.
All they can see, sometimes, is what's presented to them.
You can't blame the public schools for having that expectation that they'd be prioritized even without causing a stir. But they haven't been getting the full attention they deserve – as shown by the priority for a brand-new prison over helping the public schools get through another challenging school year.
But if the majority of these elected officials have kids or grandkids who go to public schools, the ones with classrooms that should have been demolished many years ago, the ones with classrooms that get flooded or ransacked every so often, the ones with toilets you don't want any child to go near, they'd speak up and ensure that the students' needs would not be an afterthought.
Yes, there has been attention to one school, Simon Sanchez High School, which could get rebuilt. But there are many others worse off than Simon Sanchez. Ask parents and students. Ask teachers.