Use of funds allocated to the Department of Education to recover from earthquakes and hurricanes Irma and María is unknown

CPI files court claim against the Department of Education to release public information

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Daniel Webster Elementary School in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico

Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Center for Investigative Journalism

Following several requests for information submitted to the Department of Education, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) today asked the Superior Court to order the agency and its designated Secretary, Elba Aponte Santos, to release it.

The special appeal for judicial review that the CPI filed is the remedy offered by the recently approved Transparency and Access to Public Information Act (Act 141 of 2019) when a government agency fails to comply with the term to deliver the public information requested, CPI Executive Director Carla Minet said.

The information that the CPI asked for includes the public school enrollment and budget starting in Fiscal Year 2015-2016, the funds assigned to the Department of Education to address the emergencies brought on by Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017, and the earthquakes occurred early in 2020, the list of contracts awarded using those funds, updated information on the use of funds from the federal “Immediate Aid to Restart Operations (Restart)” program, the Memorandum of Understanding between the Infrastructure Financing Authority (known as AFI, in Spanish) and the Department of Education and the plan that the agency presented on Dec. 21, 2020 for recovery projects that would be carried out with the $2 billion that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has already obligated.

“The people were told that the Educational Reform approved during the last administration would provide transparency regarding each school budget and the use of funds in the Department of Education. That promise has been broken. Almost three years after the hurricanes, it’s a mystery how the agency has used the recovery funds, or what the current plan is to use the money that’s still available. One year after the earthquakes, we don’t know how the money has been used. This information should be public and constantly updated for the public. But it’s unavailable, and asking for it insistently hasn’t worked either,” said Minet.

The CPI has requested the public information over the past months through its journalists Tatiana Díaz Ramos and Cristina Del Mar Quiles. Of the requested public information, the Department of Education has only provided partial data about public school enrollment and budget for Fiscal Year 2019-2020.

The appeal that the CPI submitted through its attorneys Luis José Torres Asencio and Steven P. Lausell Recurt, of the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico Law School’s Legal Assistance Clinic, elicits that “the right of access to information has been recognized in Puerto Rico as a fundamental human and constitutional right.”

Furthermore, the appeal states that the Puerto Rico Supreme Court has recognized the right of access to public information as an “indispensable catalyst for citizen participation,” so that the State “cannot capriciously deny the information gathered in its public management without apparent justification.”

Finally, the CPI’s court appeal also states that the information requested from the Department of Education “isn’t protected in any way by any privilege or claim of confidentiality and isn’t covered under any of the exceptions to the right of access to public information.”

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