The Department of Education (DE) has not identified the funds to pay for the incentives of at least 17 teachers in Vieques and 19 in Culebra who moved to temporarily live or commute to the island municipalities, the agency confirmed to the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish).
“There’s a law, I’m aware, and there’s a plan that we’re working on,” said Acting Secretary Yanira Raíces, referring to Act 103, signed on August 30, 2023, which establishes that “a salary differential of up to $700 per month to any teacher in the system who moves to live temporarily on the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra.” Likewise, “an incentive of $300 per month will be granted to every teacher who commutes daily to teach classes.”
Vieques and Culebra are two island municipalities located off the East coast of the main island of Puerto Rico.
Last Tuesday, the teachers of Vieques and Culebra called out to the government demanding payment of $1,000 per month agreed upon under the administration of former Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés. They called on Secretary Raíces to identify the funds and the Legislature to amend the law to make the bonus permanent.
“I have a need for them [the staff in the island municipalities ]. We are looking closely into it to see how we implement it, because [the approval of the law] was recent. It takes time, but it will pay off. I have to comply with some procedures because they are auditable and I don’t want us, the Department, to fail,” said Raíces, who was appointed to the position in July.
Last week the CPI denounced that there are unpaid teachers in the Municipal Islands and educators who demand payment of the bonuses the government promised for teachers working there, some of whom have had to resort to their savings and credit cards to pay for what it means to sometimes move to work there.
The teachers claim the accrual of payments corresponding to the last academic year, plus those corresponding to the current academic year. The DE has been granting incentives to teachers from Vieques and Culebra since 2019, in response to the historical need for educators for the municipal islands.
Initially, the DE provided the incentives through discretionary funds under the Secretary of Education. However, in August 2023 the Act was signed to eliminate that discretion and impose the obligation to incentivize educators with agency funds.
The DE has not established if, when the funds are identified, it will pay only what is owed from the moment the law came into effect or if it will comply with paying the incentives owed for the prior months worked in Vieques and Culebra.
The Acting Assistant Secretary of Human Resources, Marlene Rosa Medina, explained that the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF, in Spanish) has to do an economic impact analysis to then complete the identification of funds through the Fiscal Control Board (JCF, in Spanish). However, these incentives have been paid consecutively since 2019.
According to the positive report issued by the Senate Education Commission, neither the AAFAF nor the Office of Management and Budget (OGP, in Spanish) issued comments on the bill presented by Senate President José Luis Dalmau, and subsequently signed by Governor Pedro Pierluisi.
Rosa Medina, who was appointed to her position by former Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés on November 15, 2022, said she never received the bill and that the administrative procedures began after the law was signed. Dalmau presented the bill to grant the incentive on May 10, 2021.
In fact, the DE appeared before the Senate Education Commission on June 28, 2021, and favored the bill’s approval, according to the explanatory brief. So, this issue has been on the table for two years while the DE has not taken budgetary actions although the bill did not face any opposition. It not only had the endorsement of the DE but also that of the Teachers’ Association and Federation.
In his testimony before the Senate Education Commission, then Secretary Ramos Parés stated “we endorse the approval of this measure. The cost of living in the municipal islands is higher and transportation limits people from other towns to go teach there. So, it’s necessary to adopt measures like these to encourage and attract resources and to retain teachers who are already providing services.”
The DE’s Secretary of Academic Affairs, Ángel Toledo, said “there are legislative bills with a respectable intention, but which imply that an entire interagency administrative process has to be initiated. And this entails establishing a process in the Department and identifying where the funds will come from, which in this case are from the State, and you have to talk to the [Fiscal Control] Board.”
Toledo stressed that the intention of the law is positive, and that the commitment is to pay teachers. Raices pointed out, for her part, that she is on the teacher’s side on this and that her intention is to match the money that is identified with federal funds so that the bonus is not limited to a maximum of $700 per month.