Carlos Miranda is a high school math teacher at the Escuela Ecológica in  Culebra and has not received a cent of his salary so far, this academic year. Every Sunday he leaves his three daughters and his wife in Yabucoa, on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico,  to travel to the island municipality to work.

Every Friday he takes the 5:30 p.m. ferry from Culebra to Ceiba because the 3 p.m. trip was canceled without prior notice. He returns home between 9 and 10 p.m., hoping to maximize the little time he has with his family between Saturday and the early hours of Sunday.

Carlos is not the only teacher facing this situation in Culebra. The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) spoke with three other transient educators who have not been paid by the Department of Education (DE).

In total, there are 13 transitional teachers at this school, which has an enrollment of 130 students, from kindergarten to fourth grade. The high number of temporary teachers is because Culebra is a municipality that is difficult to recruit for. Finding certified teachers willing to move to the island municipality with all the obstacles that exist is complicated. The same happens in Vieques, where this challenge is combined with an environment of economic instability and vulnerability due to the shortage of medical services and the constant struggle with maritime transportation. It is a challenge that hinders educational processes in the islands’ schools every year.

Carlos Miranda and José Quintana are math teachers at the Escuela Ecológica de Culebra.
Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

In Culebra, everything is more expensive than on the “big island”, Puerto Rico. For example, a ham, cheese, and egg sandwich and a coffee cost $15. A personal pepperoni pizza costs $20 without a drink. Prices practically double. Three bags of rice cost $8.05, while in Fajardo, a town on the East Coast, they are available for $5. It’s the result of a historically problematic equation: freight, gasoline, tickets, workers, and food that are sometimes lost due to unforeseen events with maritime transport. Recruitment with less restrictive requirements is used to attract teachers. They do not need regulatory certification to qualify. Many new, inexperienced teachers or people with only partial college credits apply.

Most of the transitional teachers at the Escuela Ecológica have not received their salaries so far this year. When Carlos talks about his experience, he bursts into tears. He remembers the first time he went back home after spending a week without seeing his family. His youngest daughter threw herself on him and hugged him tightly, as tightly as she had ever hugged him. “Sometimes I leave on a Wednesday, and I don’t say anything to anyone. I’m leaving [to Yabucoa] and returning [to Culebra] on Thursday at four in the morning because I spoil my daughters. It is very tough because there are many situations going on. It’s not what they sell you,” he says.

The problem of money not reaching Culebra teachers is not limited to transitional educators. At least 22 people are waiting for incentive payments for teaching classes in this island municipality corresponding to the months worked between August 2022 and May 2023. And no one has received the incentives corresponding to the months of August and September of this year.

It’s Carlos’s second year as a teacher in the public system. It’s his first year teaching in Culebra. The first year he worked in Yabucoa, but he was not allowed to return.

“The position I had [in Yabucoa] was taken by a surplus teacher from another school. Since she had tenure, she was a priority to be placed in the position that I had. So, I was left with a surplus. The alternatives that were offered to me at that time were Vieques and Culebra, and I picked Culebra,” he explains.

Act 84 of 2017 says “there will be total flexibility to carry out reassignments and/or transfers, according to the system’s needs.” It also establishes that the moves will be done “as long as they don’t impose onerous burdens on the teacher and that they occur in the municipality or in the School District for which they worked at the time.”

Carlos used up his savings in a month and a half. His circumstance, like that of other Culebra teachers, contrasts with the picture that the government painted when it announced incentives for educators who traveled or moved to work on the municipal islands. What started as a mechanism to fill vacancies in Vieques and Culebra, became law this year.

Act 103 of 2023 establishes that “the Secretary will grant a salary differential of up to $700 a month to every teacher  who moves to live temporarily on the island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra to teach as part of the duties of their position.” Likewise, “it will grant an incentive of $300 a month to every teacher who travels daily to teach.”

Carlos, who lost his home in Yabucoa during Hurricane Maria, has survived on his savings this year. “My savings are now negative. I’m paying with my credit cards. Last year, when I worked in Yabucoa, I was paid from the beginning. Why do you have to wait two months to get paid [in] Culebra?”

Unlike most of his colleagues, Carlos does not have to pay rent in Culebra. So, in his situation, that “is a relief.” The Municipality of Culebra identified an abandoned house and offered it to teachers traveling from the “big island”. Carlos and another colleague agreed to stay. His name is José Quintana. He is also a math teacher, and this is his second year as an educator in Culebra. He lives in Rincón, on the opposite West coast of Puerto Rico. He has not gotten the money he is entitled to for his work this year either.

Both educators finish their workday at the school and go on to work on improvements to the property ceded by the mayor. They have done it since the first day it was turned over to them. They must spend their own money to make these improvements, which range from installing a rusty sink they found in the backyard to plumbing work in the bathroom, where used water from the sink mixes with fresh water from the shower.

One of the teachers improvised his bed with a mattress on wooden planks. And the other has a small futon. 

“It’s a small house that the mayor [Edilberto “Junito” Romero Llovet] provided for us teachers who don’t have the financial solvency to come to Culebra to work. We’ve been working to make it livable,” said Carlos with some shyness at the time of the CPI visit.

The structure was originally a house but later it was a preschool center, and traces of that remain, such as the walls painted with trees and the hopscotch painted in the backyard.

José stressed that the idea of accepting to live under these conditions is to “save on rent.” Both said they are very grateful to have the house.

Currently, they use a bathroom sink as a kitchen sink while they finish the plumbing work in the kitchen. The roof is a future project, but it’s urgent. It has multiple leaks and when it rains the house gets wet. The electrical infrastructure must also be fixed. Although Carlos is trained to do these jobs, he recognizes that the job he improvised with exposed cables on the floor to connect air conditioners in the bedrooms is dangerous.

The heat in Culebra also works against them. José, for example, had to be assisted by the school nurse a few hours before the CPI visit. He suffered a heat stroke due to the high temperatures when he started teaching. These days, heat indices were forecast in Culebra above 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

“It is not safe [the environment inside the house]. But since we are two adults, we survive like this while we’re fixing things little by little and we make this place livable,” adds Carlos, ensuring that he does what he does “for the love of the children. “It is the children who move us to teach.”

José, however, points out that it is not easy. “Being a teacher is not ‘I get in at eight and leave at three.’ It involves grading exams, planning, and putting in a couple more hours [outside school]. And what I mean is that you have to do wonders to be a teacher and a carpenter.”

In recent years, the proliferation of short-term rentals on the island municipality has complicated the search for homes to live in. Some 25% of the housing units in Culebra are used for short-term rentals. The AirDNA platform identifies at least 385 active short-term rental properties. In 2020, there were around 1,500 housing units in Culebra, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Community Survey. Culebra’s population is approximately 1,800 residents.

A calling

An open-heart surgery changed Ariel Pagán Meléndez’s life, the History teacher at the Escuela Ecológica de Culebra. He is a native of Río Grande, a northeast coastal town in Puerto Rico. He was a college professor and during the pandemic, he ran out of offers as he was not a tenured employee. He saw the teacher’s call for the municipality islands on television. He had already taught in the public system, and it seemed like a good idea to return to the classroom at a school.

Like Carlos and José, Ariel has not received a single check this academic year, his regular salary or the money corresponding to the incentive.

“When you participate in the recruiting process, from the get-go the hook is ‘Mister, we’re going to give you an additional $1,000 [monthly] for teaching in Culebra.’ From the start, they fail to do it.” According to the educator, it has been a struggle every month to claim the money. “We even had a meeting with the Secretary last year. Our anger is that we started the new year with the promise that that had been solved but  we’re still in the same place.”

Ariel Pagán, a history teacher, has not received his regular salary or incentive money.
Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez |
Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

This is Ariel’s second year teaching in Culebra. Unlike Carlos and José, he lives in a rental studio near the school for around $600 a month, water and electricity costs are not included. Added to that is the transportation of his vehicle on the ferry twice a week at a cost of $36.50 for each trip. There are also expenses related to food and other financial responsibilities since his main residence is in Río Grande.

“It’s a domino effect. You don’t get paid, [rental] costs are high, and the cost of living is higher. And here, the people who rent tell you the same thing: ‘Mister, we know that you get paid $1,000 more to pay rent.’ And that isn’t true because the incentive is aimed at covering all expenses.”

The schoolteachers keep a record of the months worked and those that remain to be paid. A teacher is waiting for five payments corresponding to the last academic year. Four other teachers are owed three of those monthly payments and 17 educators are owed two. That’s besides the payments corresponding to last month and the current one.

Two jobs to get by

There are teachers at the Escuela Ecológica who work two jobs to deal with the lack of money. Eneida Ruiz is one of those examples. She is from Lajas, in the southwest coast of Puerto Rico, and this is her second year as a teacher in Culebra. She moved to the island municipality with her husband, because when she was traveling back home, she ended up getting there at 11 p.m.

Lizette Núñez, the school’s teacher-librarian, has not received the incentives.
Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez |
Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

“We live in a house, and I pay around $800 on the condition that I provide maintenance to the entire house and its land. That’s not the reality of all colleagues. And it’s because Airbnb became a problem too. That aggravates our situation, because while homes are scarce, costs have also skyrocketed.”

When she leaves school, Eneida works as an administrator at the nonprofit organization Fundación de Culebra. Eneida, Carlos, José, and Ariel came here following the government’s call to fill teacher vacancies. The educators got there, but the money for their work was left behind.

The teacher-librarian Lizette Núñez sent a letter dated September 6 to the DE’s Acting Secretary, Yanira Raíces. She said that for the first time in a long time, the staff of the Escuela Ecológica de Culebra was complete for the full school year. “These teachers are already considering leaving and it isn’t fair,” the letter states. “Please don’t have us go through another year of torture for not getting paid.”

The DE was asked for a reaction to these allegations, but as of press time, the agency had not provided any information.