PSS teachers may hold demonstration

'MAYBE IT IS UP TO US': Kagman High School librarian Maria Ornes speaks during the assembly of teachers in the cafeteria of Garapan Elementary School on Thursday. David Butterfield via Marianas Variety

SAIPAN – Public School System teachers may hold an "organized demonstration" to demand an explanation from the central government about the "deep cuts" to the education budget.

Hundreds of teachers met in the Marianas High School cafeteria Thursday afternoon to discuss the PSS financial situation.

Board of Education teacher representative and Saipan Southern High School teacher Paul Miura told his fellow educators, "I really feel that your voices are going to carry much further. So I'm hoping that this can be the beginning of a more unified stance for PSS. I'm not going to stand here today to try to rally you or anything like that. I'm just here to share some information and give you the forum to perhaps start these conversations and allow you to decide how much we're willing to take."

Associate Education Commissioner Lynette Villagomez told the teachers that a $42.8 million budget had been approved for PSS for fiscal year 2019.

This was reduced by $7.5 million with the implementation of the austerity measures following a decline in government revenue collections.

"To date, the central government has transferred a total amount of $18 million," Villagomez added.

She said if officials were to add the $700,000 biweekly allotments promised for the rest of the fiscal year, PSS will receive about $23 million for fiscal 2019 – a nearly 50 percent cut.

At the same meeting, PSS finance director Christopher Ching reported that PSS received just $500,000 from the central government Thursday and not $700,000 as promised in a Tuesday meeting.

'We need to actualize that risk'

Jeremy Rother, who teaches AP literature and honors philosophy at MHS, said, "It seems like the ball's in our court. (Education Commissioner) Glenn Muna and the (BOE) members have talked to the media about the possibility of losing teachers in the event of a pay cut. I think we need to actualize that risk. We need to demonstrate that it is something that can actually happen."

SSHS teacher Roy Adsit suggested that the teachers involve parents. "The point is we need transparency from the central government and we need to let the parents know what is going on."

Kagman High School librarian Maria Ornes said, "We want to ask the PSS leadership to demand the central government ... how much money we have and where it is going. Or maybe it is not just up to the PSS leadership, but maybe it is up to us."

She added, "The remittance has only been $500,000 and they promised $700,000. Maybe that is an excellent time to go. We would have to tell our children and parents what really is happening and why we are doing it. It is not just we are going in a fit of anger or frustration. We will do it meaningfully, do it with organization and we do it together."

She said if there is really no money "then give us the documentation, and we'll just have to accept it."

Many teachers expressed support for Ornes' proposal to hold an "organized demonstration."

"I think the organized demonstration, tomorrow or at another scheduled date, makes a lot of sense. We need to gauge support for that," Rother said.

PSS should take the lead

Former Education Commissioner Rita Sablan at the meeting urged teachers to take the lead and ask the governor to appear before the Legislature and "testify under oath" about the fiscal condition of the CNMI.

"My suggestion is for the school district to send a letter to the speaker of the House and the Senate president and ask if they can bring in the four officials – the governor, the lieutenant governor, the Office of Management and Budget head and the secretary of finance – so they can tell us under oath the fiscal affairs of the CNMI."

Sablan, an independent candidate for lieutenant governor in the 2018 elections, said she is not suggesting a walkout or a march.

'The checks ... will bounce'

Ching assured the teachers that there would be payroll Friday. "But I also want you to know at what cost. The checks (we) issued to the vendors will bounce."

Asked about the proposed organized demonstration, BOE teacher representative Miura said "that was not something that I was planning on initiating. Teachers will have their own voice when it comes to whatever they decide to do."

He added there was no concrete plan yet.

"People are just venting their concerns."

Also attending the meeting were independent Reps. Tina Sablan and Ed Propst, the House minority leader.

Sablan assured the teachers that she will join them in whatever action they take.