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What’s the Price Tag for Fixing Up Puerto Rico’s Schools? Try $11 Billion

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 13, 2019 4 min read
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More than a year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, public schools on the island still need much more than a coat of paint.

That’s according to Julia Keleher, the U.S territory’s education secretary. To be precise, she put the total cost of repairing the island’s 856 public schools, and bringing them up to school building standards which until recently didn’t exist, at $11 billion. For perspective, that’s more than one-seventh of the U.S. Department of Education’s total operating budget for this fiscal year.

The secretary has categorized the work into different buckets. Initially, Keleher said she has to try to get roughly $100 million in unspent Federal Emergency Management Agency Category B funds (think immediate health and safety work) released, in order to do things like mold remediation in schools. But that work will have to wait until the summer because, as she put it, “I can’t remediate mold, paint, and repair roofs while kids are in building. I don’t have any place to put them.”

Then, Keleher said she will use $1 billion in FEMA Category E money (think structural, longer-term work) to do construction work at 64 schools. Generally speaking, these schools are intended to be a representative sample of older and new buildings in a variety of environments, in order to give the island’s Department of Education an idea of how much it will cost to fix different types of schools. Throughout this process, she said officials will also need answers to questions about the extent to which communities want to be involved, and where students are sent while their regular school buildings are getting repaired.

Keleher estimated that at minimum, the $11 billion worth of work on schools will take three years, but said a better estimate is probably about seven years.

“The rebuild is a very lengthy process,” she said.

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

The issue of funding for Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery from Hurricanes Maria and Irma suddenly found its way back into the headlines a few days ago. That’s when news outlets reported that President Donald Trump could decide to use U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funding intended for (among other things) projects to aid storm recovery in Puerto Rico to build hundreds of miles of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border instead.

“If he takes the money away I won’t be able to fix my schools,’' Keleher said. “I don’t have other money to do it.”

Aida Díaz, the president of Puerto Rico’s teachers’ union, issued a statement Friday through the American Federation of Teachers opposing this idea, saying that educators deserve better after cleaning their classrooms up from Hurricanes Maria and Irma and teaching without electricity and air conditioning. (Díaz’s union is an affiliate of the AFT.)

“The federal government was never doing enough, but now it’s threatening to take what little has already been allocated to help,” Díaz said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló also criticized the idea on Friday:

Other Puerto Rico work: Keleher said she’s also focused on securing employment for students after they graduate, a commitment she made after attending several meetings with high school students to discuss their needs. She recalled meeting one student who said he had managed to avoid drug dealing in his neighborhood, but was feeling the pressure to start dealing on the corner; Keleher recalled that the student told her, “All this is in your hands.”

“I want to make sure that the kids that graduate have options, and they can go get employment,” Keleher said.

Keleher also said she’s interested in exploring options so that students in high school can get jobs, receive professional development on the job, and get credit that helps them graduate from high school. In addition, she wants to create a 150-hour certification program this spring to connect students with thousands of jobs with contractors, so that they have construction jobs waiting for them after they graduate.

“People say, ‘Ah, you can’t do that.’ Why can’t we?” Keleher said.

Keleher and Rosselló made waves last spring for supporting a new law that now allows charter schools and vouchers on the island for the first time. The first charter school in Puerto Rico opened last August, but the voucher program won’t start until next year. And it remains to be seen not just how many students participate—there’s a cap and other requirements for children who enter the voucher program—but also how many private schools accept those students.

“Not everyone is willing to paticipate. They’ve already said that,” the secretary said. “Some schools don’t think it’s going to be a good option for them.”

And how long is Keleher planning to stick around? She said she plans to remain Puerto Rico’s education secretary for another six years, in order to make sure that the changes she wants to see are durable and that people who follow her are prepared to take over the revamped system. (Keleher was appointed by Rosselló in early 2017, and the governor is up for re-election in about two years.)

“I want to see it through,” she said.

Photo: Teacher Edgar Esquilin stands in his classroom, closed due to water damage, in Loiza, Puerto Rico, in January 2018. (Andrew Ujifusa/Education Week)

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