DOE prepares for change: New superintendent, deputy will face challenges


Guampdn.com
Written by Oyaol Ngirairikl

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Next week, Guam Department of Education Superintendent Nerissa Bretania Underwood and one of her deputies are retiring.

Their retirement comes at a time when the department is facing a litany of issues.

Negotiations for the teacher union-education board contract and upcoming budget hearings that will determine the department funding for the next two fiscal years are coming up. There are up to $60 million in capital improvement and technology projects going through the procurement process. The projects aim to make Guam’s public schools safe and healthy for students, but also equip the more than 31,000 students with the education to be successful in the 21st century workforce.

Then there’s the issue of the new school year starting with at least one school still closed and the opening of another school dependent on the completion of construction. The new school year begins on Aug. 9.

Underwood said she’s created a transition committee that likely will be led by Deputy Superintendent Taling Taitano. Taitano oversees the department’s finances and facilities. Deputy Superintendent Arlene Unpingco, who oversees curriculum and human resources, will be retiring along with Underwood.

All three of their contracts expire July 20, but Underwood said she’s extending Taitano’s contract an additional 18 months.

Guam Education Board members have agreed to it and the contract awaits approval by the Office of the Attorney General.

Taitano agreed to stay on, saying she hopes to be able to stay with the department for longer.

“The 18 months give us time to really get the new superintendent acquainted with everything and to see also if we work well together,” Taitano said.

The Guam Education Board superintendent search committee is reviewing nine applicants for the new position, and the top three applicant’s names will be presented to the Board as a whole.

Underwood said Taitano’s willingness to stay on will help ease the new superintendent into the department.

“The plan is really critical not only for transition, but critical for stability in staying the course in implementing all these projects that are (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funded that has to do with improving our financial management system and our facilities and our procurement of massive technology that will help our students and teachers,” Underwood said.

The superintendent said, historically, this is the first time in at least the last 10 years that the outgoing superintendent has been able to provide guidelines for the new superintendent.

“The past couple of superintendents didn’t have a chance to say goodbye or make the plans for the new superintendent to come in,” she said. “We’re actually laying out the groundwork so that as the new superintendent can hit the road running and have a number of people who can provide an orientation on key projects and options for the initiatives that the superintendent may want to consider.”

Facilities

Guam DOE hired facilities management expert Sodexo to assess public schools. In January, the company presented a list of necessary repairs and renovations, and prioritized them based on their impact on safety and health.

At the top of the list are repairs to leaking roofs, upgrades to air-conditioning and ventilation systems, and the installation of energy saving windows and doors, as well as security alarms. Department officials are working with the AG’s office to help get through the bureaucratic process and get the contracts awarded expeditiously so the actual work can be completed.

“That (report) puts the department in good standing in terms of knowing what needs to be addressed immediately and what can be put off for a number of years,” she said. “What the new superintendent is going to need to do is work with our lawmakers to find funds to help facilitate those projects beyond the ARRA funds that we were awarded.”

The new superintendent will also have to determine how to implement the new performance-based contract for maintenance, Underwood said. Currently, Guam DOE has a staff of maintenance employees but a previous law didn’t allow the department to hire new staff, even as employees retired or quit.

The shortage of manpower was compounded by a lack of funding for maintenance — and like teachers, maintenance employees would dip into their own pockets to buy the parts or tools necessary to make requested repairs at schools, she said.

Two new laws passed several months ago require that Guam DOE look at a performance-based maintenance contract, but also allow the department to hire new maintenance employees should it be determined that privatizing services doesn’t mean money will be saved.

“I would suggest they do a pilot program in a couple of regions to determine its efficiency compared to those regions managed by our internal maintenance division,” Underwood said.

But even with a well-funded and well-equipped maintenance crew, the bottom line for Guam’s public schools is the need for more schools. Though the previous administration was able to build several new schools, they weren’t enough to keep up with the population growth. New schools in Dededo and Mangilao helped pull about 300 students from Juan M. Guerrero Elementary School in Harmon, easing crowded conditions there.

“And now they’re back up to their capacity. Some of those students may have to be shifted to Chief Brodie Elementary School even as soon as the coming school year,” Underwood said. “The new superintendent needs to press on in pushing for new schools in the northern and central areas.”

Underwood said the new superintendent will have to re-evaluate attendance areas for the schools to help ease crowding in northern and central schools, and make the most of underutilized schools in the south.

Budget

In the upcoming weeks, the Guam DOE officials and Guam Federation of Teachers will be negotiating a new teacher union-board contract.

Taitano said the contract, which determines teachers’ working conditions, including the number of hours teachers work in a day and their duties inside and outside of a classroom and the amount of leave available to them, will have an impact on the budget.

“The negotiating team would pay a key role in determining some of the (human resources) costs and where we’re at in terms of our finances,” Taitano said, noting that finances may be tight this upcoming year.

As Taitano tries to see how much financial impact the closure of F.Q. Sanchez Elementary School, and the change in the Southern High School bell schedule will have on the department’s budget for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the new fiscal year’s proposed budget for Guam DOE raises a concern.

“The governor’s proposed budget for the new fiscal year (cuts) our own proposed budget by about $71 million,” Taitano said.

The education board approved a $261.8 million budget request for Fiscal 2012. The governor’s budget proposes $196 million. Taitano said she, the new superintendent, and her financial team will work with the administration to address the difference.

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