Ada Nilda Montalvo González, a teacher in the Segunda Unidad de Cuchillas, in Moca, a town in the western region, says that she will have to continue teaching this year because the money is not enough to live on if she chooses retirement. She tells her story from a classroom in a school that is not where she usually teaches. She is working during the summer to make “a little extra money.”
She is 64 years old, has dedicated 20 of service in the Department of Education (DE) and 27 to teaching in public and private schools. At the Patria Latorre Ramírez High School, in nearby San Sebastián, the educator sits at a desk and says she is old enough to retire but does not have the years of public service that would “guarantee” her some financial stability (30 years).
“It’s hard for me at this age. When would I finish [completing 30 years in the DE]? At 70-something? I can’t,” says the teacher, now grappling with the complexities of attending to students while dealing with the summer heat, wearing masks, and limiting walks around the room.
The economic aspect played an important role for Montalvo between 2003 and 2005, when — like many other Puerto Rican teachers — she took part in the Teacher Track program, a law to establish procedures for promotions and teacher salary reviews, and set parameters for the individual teacher’s professional improvement plans.
Montalvo, who is an elementary school teacher, completed a master’s degree in Curriculum and Teaching, and successfully completed her “Teacher Track” in December 2007. Since then, the DE excluded — among the economic benefits she had earned — a portion of the corresponding monthly payment raise that she was promised. In 2014 when a state of fiscal emergency was declared on the island, through the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico Special Fiscal and Operational Sustainability Act, the situation of teachers like Montalvo worsened. This mandate suspended bonuses, benefits, and monetary compensations, which was coupled with the impact of Fiscal Plan Compliance Act in 2017, which ended up amplifying the DE’s non-compliance with Montalvo and thousands of other teachers, justifying the Track’s paralysis in the context of the fiscal crisis.
Although the Act to Address the Economic, Fiscal, and Budgetary Crisis to Guarantee the Operation of the Government of Puerto Rico, as well as Law 66, banned retroactive claims, “all payment claims for the period prior to 2014 must be addressed and evaluated in accordance with the provisions of Act 158-1999 [Teacher Track],” according to a letter from Acting DE Secretary, Eliezer Ramos Parés, sent to the Senate and to which the CPI had access. In Montalvo’s case, she has failed to receive about $93 per month for 13 years, a sum that, when accrued from 2008 to 2021, exceeds $15,000.
“My pay has increased since 2007 [due to the Teacher Track], but I hadn’t completed the last step. I didn’t know that I hadn’t been paid for that last step until 2014. I found out from my daughter, who is also a teacher, and she told me to check if I had been paid for all the steps. I have gone to make a claim several times and they tell me: ‘You need an evaluation from the director.’ I submitted those documents. ‘You’re missing such paper.’ I deliver those. Every time one goes (to the DE HQ), they ask for something else and something else. So, I say, ‘I give up. I don’t want to go again.’ Because it’s time that you lose there. You have to ask for the day off and they will discount it (from the salary).”
When a teacher got their tenure and presented an approved Professional Improvement Plan, they received the equivalent of the first level of the Teacher Track: a 7% increase in their basic salary, according to the regulations. The advancement plans were divided into five stages. For each of these stages or steps, whoever entered the Teacher Track had to establish the specific goals and objectives that they proposed to achieve after getting college credits, hours of participation in courses and continuous education programs.
Montalvo has spent seven years trying to get paid for that last step that she completed in December 2007 after finalizing the Teacher Track. She has requested official information about her case and has not received a single document from the DE with details on the reasons why she still is owed the money she worked hard for before the laws related to the island’s fiscal crisis were approved.
Retiring before 30 years of public service and not getting what she’s owed since 2007 affects the quality of life for Montalvo, who lives with her husband. She considers her circumstances unfair.
“Right now, I pay for my car. The salary of an active teacher isn’t the same as that of a retired one. A retirement pension isn’t so much, especially if I leave before completing the 30 years in the system. No matter how high my salary is, if I don’t have 30 years with the system they won’t pay me the same amount in retirement money. It hurts, it really hurts. To think that this money is yours, that they haven’t given it to you and that you need it, really hurts,” she says. From the desk where she is sitting, Montalvo remembers colleagues “who have died waiting for a dignified retirement” or simply “waiting for the day that they pay off a debt that forced them to continue at work”.
If Montalvo retired today, more than 50 years old and with less than 30 years of service in the DE, her monthly pension would be calculated by multiplying her average monthly salary by 1.8% and then by her years of service (20). For example, if her average monthly salary was currently $2,000, her monthly pension would be $720 a month [excluding deductions], according to the retirement alternatives for teachers in Puerto Rico.
“Like me, there are many teachers who are waiting for this [the money owed from the Teacher Track] to leave. You get to a certain age when you say: ‘I can’t [do this] anymore.’ I would like to be paid and to be able to leave in peace. To be able to say: ‘I fulfilled my commitment and they fulfilled theirs’.”
Race against the clock
The DE doesn’t know how much exactly it owes to thousands of teachers who signed up for the so-called “Teacher Track” and never saw the results of the time and effort they put into professional improvement. After countless requests for information since April, the agency did not provide the CPI with the number of teachers awaiting payments due or a breakdown that allows confirming since when and why that money never arrived.
Miguel Dávila Pérez, operations manager of the DE’s Quality and Data Management Division, told the CPI that “we don’t have the information requested in the Planning and Performance Area.”
The agency did provide an estimate of how much the debt was before the payments stopped in 2014. It is about $4,367,736, according to the Interim Secretary’s statement to the Senate.
According to Ramos Parés, at the time it was paused, there were 3,858 Teacher Track plans pending for review and activation. He estimated that $8 million annually is needed to reactivate the Teacher Track Act, although he did not elaborate on how the agency came to that conclusion.
“These are numbers that we have on hand and that represent an approximation of what we need to cover the debt and to reactivate the Teacher Track incentive. For this reason, we ask this honorable body for additional time to carry out an exhaustive analysis of the pending plans for review to arrive at a more accurate estimate of the budget necessary to comply with the initiative,” according to part of the explanation the Acting Secretary presented to the Senate.
In contrast, prior Secretary Eligio Hernández, had declared in 2019 that the DE had evaluated 166 Teacher Track cases that were pending payment, after the Teachers Association took the issue of the debt to court. At the time, the San Juan Superior Court, through Superior Court Judge Myrna Esther Ayala Díaz, ordered the lawsuit’s suspension under the PROMESA Act.
This year the Senate passed two resolutions to investigate the status of the Teacher Track and what steps, if any, the DE has taken regarding the debt. But to this day, these efforts have not moved the educators’ claims forward.
In April 2007, Noemí Hiraldo Santiago, an elementary school teacher from the Humacao Region, decided to invest in her studies with the goal of improving her performance in the classroom and at the same time receiving a salary increase that was “a little more” in line with her level of training. She has not received a penny of that money, despite having completed graduate studies and applied for financial aid to pay for part of her studies.
Hiraldo has not been able to make a single payment on her student loans, “because the money isn’t enough.” She is 63 years old and, although she may retire due to age, her goal is to complete 30 years of public service, “because I need the money.”
The educator from the northeastern town of Río Grande is quiet for a few seconds on the other end of the phone line when asked if she is ready to return to the classroom despite the new pandemic spike. “I have knee replacements in both of my legs. I have had surgery and am disabled,” she said. The debts were combined with her medical needs. The hope of receiving the money accrued over the past 15 years has become something that she got tired of explaining.
“I think I’ll hit retirement and I will be old when I leave the system, with my master’s degree training that never, ever, gave me the Teacher Track increase. After they told me to study…,” she added. “I got my master’s degree, sick and old. Raising a daughter who was in high school by myself.”
Her graduate studies were in Curriculum and K-3 Teaching. Her salary was supposed to increase by $500 a month. The approval of her Teacher Track proposal was in 2008. Everything was left up in the air. The DE’s debt with Hiraldo is at least $60,000 over a 10-year period alone, according to documents kept by the teacher.
“My salary has not increased at all since then. My salary is $2,721.67 per month [without adjusting for deductions]. I remember that every year, the teachers, if they were owed something, did the salary review, a supervisor from Humacao would come, would review all the documentation, provided a receipt and that day the teacher met with the director and the supervisor, they reviewed the Teacher Track folder, and then it was all wait, wait and wait. This is what is currently keeping me in the system,” she said.
Hiraldo and Montalvo’s names appear in a list of more than 900 teachers who, through social networks, completed a questionnaire to share information about their respective experiences with the Teacher Track program. The document was prepared by another educator who also claims money owed by the DE. Her name is Victoria García Montalvo, a teacher in the Special Education program in Cabo Rojo, in the West coast, and she identified the peers in a situation like hers hoping to file a collective claim against the government.
“In 2015 I submitted the evidence and the request for Salary Review and Level Claim. That means that since September 2015 I would be awarded both the level and the scale. In my case, it was for Level III, with an increase of $595 per month. This breaks down as follows: for each stage it is an increase of $87.50. My plan had five stages, for a total of $437.50. This is added to what corresponds to Level II, which is $157.50; for a total of $595 a month. It means that from September 2015 to June 2021 the debt amounts to about $41,650,” said the teacher from the Severo E. Colberg School, belonging to the Mayagüez Educational Region, in the West side of the island.
She too has not received a formal explanation about the status of her case. The Teacher Track process dictates that, when the activation process is completed, the DE authorizes the completion of the Professional Improvement Plan submitted by each teacher who applied. That first step came with a salary increase. The money corresponding to the activation was the only thing García received, even though she complied with all the requests and invested her own money and time to improve her academic preparation.
García sent letters to then-Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced and, more recently, to Pedro Pierluisi. Vázquez Garced’s response, through an official from her office, by the name of Mari Carmen Bosch, was that “unfortunately, the law known as the Teacher Track Act was frozen and annulled as a result of the PROMESA Act and the measures taken to lessen the government’s debt and the economic and social crisis that Puerto Rico is going through.”
She added that Act 26-2017 “was exactly the measure that the government had to take” and that “it annulled laws such as the Teacher Track, which granted marginal benefits to public employees.” Bosch closed the letter saying that “thanks to educated and dedicated teachers” like Miss García, “Puerto Rico has a better future.”
Page 121 of Governor Pierluisi’s platform promises salary increases, fostering teacher certification and retraining agreements, and even enabling educators to undertake graduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico “with discounted tuition or fully funded by the Department of Education.” However, the Department of Education’s consolidated budget for the recently begun Fiscal 2021-2022 did not consider an increase in the base salary of teachers or anything related to facilitating their studies.
“A news story came out today about an incentive for teachers [for working during the pandemic]. Disbelief and distrust are perceived on social media and in the chat that I manage. It’s frustrating because we feel that they play with our emotional health and the little peace of mind that we have. All this a few days away from an uncertain back to school scenario,” said García, about a $200 million disbursement in federal funds that La Fortaleza announced to incentivize DE employees with two payments of $2,500 between December 2021 and May 2022.
José M. Encarnación Martínez is a member of Report for America.