Editor's note: This article has been corrected to attribute a quote to The Office of Vice Speaker Telena Cruz Nelson. In an earlier version of this story, something other than that was published.
Although Guam Department of Education Superintendent Jon Fernandez has transfer authority to reallocate funds as needed to run public schools, the Legislature’s passage of Public Law 35-99 has left the cash-strapped institution with several million dollars in shortfall and without the funding mechanism for its sports programs.
Before Bill No. 282-35, also known as the budget bill, became law, there existed a provision for funding interscholastic sports through the Healthy Futures Fund. However, after Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero vetoed the bill, the Legislature then overrode and the budget became law. The Healthy Futures Fund line item for interscholastic sports was removed, eliminating $884,852.
While Guam remains in Pandemic Condition or Readiness 1, the government’s highest level of islandwide lockdown, interscholastic sports is not allowed, nor is in-person education. And, without a timeline for Guam’s emergence from the coronavirus pandemic, Fernandez is eyeing a return to a more traditional learning experience and the resurrection of sports next semester.
For GDOE to resurrect its fledgling sports program, not only will Fernandez be faced with many tough challenges and judgment calls, he will also have to figure out how to pay for it.
"We will be working with the board on funding since we received a $15 million reduction this year, including the reduction of the dedicated funding for interscholastic sports that we have received annually in prior years,” he said.
Depending on the state of the island, and if given the authority by the governor and Department of Public Health and Social Services, GDOE plans to resume competition with a trio of sports.
“We will be looking at starting with low-risk sports, including cross-country, tennis and volleyball," Fernandez said. “We will need safety plans for all sports to include fitness and conditioning (and) practice and competition.
“These are all works in progress and in line with our broader discussion relative to potentially reopening schools.
"We will be finalizing our plans to reopen next semester, assuming we will have authorization from the governor or DPHSS," he added.
While Fernandez and GDOE and gear up for the possible start of a more normal spring semester, working within the razor-thin budget may be their greatest hurdle.
The allowance and removal of special funds, according to Guam Education Voard Vice Chairman Mark Mendiola and member James Lujan, were politically motivated and meant to sabotage public school sports.
"Obviously, they didn’t want us to succeed in that regard," Mendiola said.
"They’re raiding our funding and it is of grave concern for us," he added.
In May 2019, after months of discussion and airing its displeasure with how the Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam had allegedly mismanaged sports, GDOE seceded and formed its own league, the Interscholastic Sports Association.
The decision was criticized by the governor and some members of the Legislature and, before the split, they urged the two sports organizations to mend their 20-year relationship and learn to work together.
The Legislature is sly, Lujan said.
“The Legislature screwed up interscholastic sports for the public schools,” he added. “That’s basically what they did, they took away the Healthy Futures Fund.”
"I don’t know if the governor is upset that we created interscholastic sports for public schools, but they slashed that thing out of our budget," Lujan said.
“To me, that was blatant. I’m going to make it be known. That was a political move. There’s no reason why that fund should have been zeroed out,” he added.
However, Vice Speaker Telena Cruz Nelson's office doesn’t see it that way and said the decision to delete interscholastic sports funding from GDOE’s budget was not based on malice, but on information revealed during budgetary hearings.
“During fiscal year 2021 budget discussions, GDOE indicated that they anticipated the possibility of not being able to properly conduct interscholastic sports for at least two-thirds of the current school year, in light of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic,” The Office of Vice Speaker Telena Cruz Nelson Told The Guam Daily Post. “GDOE indicated this realistic possibility, which we now know to be reality, would, in hindsight, contribute to cost-savings and, in particular, capital improvement projects for our schools.”
In another blow to public school sports, the Legislature slashed GDOE’s budget by another $22,891 when it reduced its take from the Limited Gaming Fund. The gaming fund revenues were generated through establishments that offer games of chance. Due to business closures while in PCOR1, funding from this source is expected to be much less than the $535,801 passed by the Legislature for fiscal year 2021. In fiscal 2020, the funding source gave GDOE $558,692 for sports facilities maintenance and upkeep.
“I think that we’re going to get a hit on that,” said Mendiola. “It’s just unfortunate because, of course, our facilities need that maintenance.
"How are we going to get the Limited Gaming Fund when you take away the two biggest funding sources: cockfighting and games of chance?" Mendiola asked.
On Guam, the federal law against animal fighting (7 U.S.C. § 2156), went into effect in December 2019.
"I think next year is going to be a very tough year for us," Fernandez said.
"If we do want to do sports, it’s going to force us to find other parts of our budget to fund it," he added.