Guam Department of Education Superintendent Jon Fernandez is hoping to use part of $110 million in federal funding intended to help reopen schools – including private schools – to address some capital improvement projects at the public schools.
In local funding, GDOE requested $373 million from the Legislature to fund the department in fiscal year 2022, with about $42 million included for capital improvement projects.
“We requested a significant amount for capital improvements because our facilities need those repairs and the fact of the matter is the government of Guam has basically reached its limit in terms of borrowing,” Fernandez said. “So that’s meant that any further borrowing for school facility investments has been off the table and has been off the table for a while. That would typically be the way you fund your long-term facility investments.”
Absent bond financing, the government of Guam has relied on municipal leasing to fund major school renovation and construction projects, as evidenced by John F. Kennedy High School and Okkodo High School, among others.
In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified about $90 million in deferred maintenance at public schools.
GDOE’s funding for facilities and maintenance is mostly spread out through all the schools and is insufficient for major projects at specific schools.
Larger projects, such as canopy repairs, have largely been supported by funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior, according to Fernandez.
Some of the $110 million may be used to finance the capital improvements part of the $42 million outlined in GDOE’s fiscal 2022 budget request, Fernandez said, but the department won’t know exactly which projects can be covered until the U.S. Department of Education decides on approval.
Similar to the Education Stabilization Funding granted to GDOE in mid-2020, the $110 million is meant to address needs with opening schools in light of COVID-19, which includes providing safety supplies and related facility improvements.
To that extent, Fernandez said he hopes projects such as air conditioning and ventilation improvements, the building of more covering around outside areas to promote social distancing on campus, and restroom renovations across schools can be funded with federal dollars.
Fernandez said he does not believe the conversion of Chief Brodie Memorial Elementary School into a central middle school or some more widespread renovations at schools would be covered by the funds.
“That’s kind of the key factor there. Can we find a way to capture that facility improvement within our COVID-19 strategy? If so, then that’s something we would definitely want to see if we could tackle,” Fernandez said.
GDOE officials met last week with school administrators and have met with teacher leaders and private school and nonprofit administrators, according to Fernandez.
The department has announced three participation sessions – elementary and secondary school parents Wednesday, and special education parents Thursday – to gather input on the proposed use of the $110 million.
Once that is complete, GDOE will shape a proposal that it hopes USDOE will approve, Fernandez said.
To the extent that federal money can be used to cover budget items, Fernandez said, GDOE will let lawmakers know that local funding won’t be needed.
But GDOE has historically been appropriated much less than what it requests from the Legislature each fiscal year.
For fiscal 2022, the governor’s executive request outlines just $202 million for GDOE, which is more in line with legislative appropriations over the last few fiscal years and is in consideration of anticipated government revenues in light of the pandemic.
The fiscal 2022 budget process is just beginning but, if the Legislature adopts the governor’s request at the end of the fiscal year, that will essentially mean there will be no funding in the budget for capital improvements, according to Fernandez.
“Under our past budgets and under our current governor’s budget, what that means is that if we come in at that level, we’re not going to have any capital facility investments available to us in terms of our budget,” he said. “We’re going to have to continue to look for creative opportunities, but the money that we’re given are primarily going to go to meet the essential mandates of the 14 points (for education), which starts with ensuring that certified personnel are in our schools, … ensure that we have air conditioners working, ensure that we have clean water and so forth. So the major renovations, the major fixes to our schools’ facilities are going to continue to be unmet.”
At this point, Fernandez said he does not know where GDOE will end up, but it will have to prepare for both the best and worst possible scenarios. The best-case scenario is if GDOE is able to continue to receive federal funding, including a third wave of education funding, as well as the local government receiving a new wave of federal funding, which was absent from the latest congressional aid package.