The Theft of a Great American School: José Meléndez Ayala Elementary

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They came in the early morning like thieves in the night.

The predawn chill was still in the air.

But employees of Puerto Rico’s Department of Education (DOE) were already at work closing a beloved public school.

They sneaked into José Meléndez Ayala Elementary Tuesday around 4 a.m. taking out desks, chalkboards and any equipment that could be repurposed. Then they loaded it all into trucks and zoomed off.

By the time the sun had risen, it was all over.

In the morning light, parents and children staggered to their neighborhood school in the Manatí region of the U.S. territory to find it an empty shell.

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For 9 months they had been camping out in front of the building during the day to stop anyone from doing what had just been done.

“Tears were shed by parents and children. We will never forget,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – the teachers union.

Even though the school was one of 150 closed in the past 5 years, roughly 35 community members refused to let government employees step foot inside.

For about 180 days, they had kept the DOE away with placards and slogans like “This is my school and I want to defend it,” and “There is no triumph without struggle, there is no struggle without sacrifice!”

Officials hadn’t even been able to shut off the water or electricity. Until now.

The community had hoped to convince the government to reopen the school.

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Parents went to Governor Alejandro García-Padilla’s mansion and spoke with his assessors, members of the legislature, the Secretary of Education Rafael Román, regional officers from the DOE, candidates for both major parties, and members of the municipal assembly.

“All stated their support except the DOE,” Martinez says. “But nothing was done.”

The municipal assembly even passed a resolution requesting the school to be reopened. It never happened.

The Commonwealth Senate sent its education committee to visit the school and inspect it. They made a recommendation to reopen it.

It never happened.

“The Secretary of Education didn’t answer,” Martinez says. “He’s behind all this.”

Manatí’s Mayor Juan Aubín Cruz Manzano may have wanted the building to use for anther purpose.

“The Secretary of Education confabulated to give it to him, as he handed him two other schools he shut down in Manatí for the mayor to use the buildings as he pleases,” Martinez says.

Perhaps most hurtful, says Martinez, is that employees of the DOE weren’t alone in looting the school.

After the DOE left, teachers from other schools came to take whatever free materials were left behind, she says. They were directed to do so by principals who had never supported the occupation.

“It was shameful,” Martinez says. “Now this building will become part of the obsolete infrastructure. Parents are demoralized.”

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Community members whose children went to the school now have to pay to transport their kids to new schools miles away. With drastic budget cuts, these remaining schools often have class sizes of 35 students or more. Amenities like arts, music, health and physical education have typically been slashed.

The island territory’s financial woes stem from a flock of steady circling vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling Puerto Rican debt.

Hundreds of American private equity moguls and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

Since 2012, U.S. citizens who live on the island for at least 183 days a year pay minimal or no taxes, and unlike those living in Singapore or Bermuda, they get to keep their U.S. passports. After all, they’re still living in the territorial U.S. These individuals pay no local or federal capital gains taxes and no local taxes on dividend interest for 20 years. Even someone working for a mainland company who resides on the island is exempt from paying U.S. federal taxes on his salary.

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Big corporations are taking advantage of the situation, too.

Worldwide, American companies keep 60 percent of their cash overseas and untaxed. That’s about $1.7 trillion annually.

Microsoft, for instance, routes its domestic operations through Puerto Rican holdings to reduce taxes on its profits to 1.02 percent – a huge savings from the U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent! Over three years, Microsoft saved $4.5 billion in taxes on goods sold in the U.S. alone. That’s a savings of $4 million a day!

Meanwhile, these corporate tax savings equal much less revenue for government entities – both inside and outside of Puerto Rico – to use for public goods such as schooling.

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Public schools get their funding from tax revenues. Less tax money means less money to pay for children’s educations. As the Puerto Rican government borrowed in an attempt to shore up budget deficits, the economy tanked.

But have no fear! In swooped Hedge Funds to buy up that debt and sell it for a profit.

When this still wasn’t enough to prop up a system suffering from years of neglect, the Hedge Fund managers demanded more school closures, firing more teachers, etc.

Wall Street greed has devoured another public school. But the battle for public education goes on.

Tania Ginés, the community leader who organized the occupation for so long says she is not defeated.

“I have decided to become the voice of those with no voice and will continue organizing parents throughout the island against any more School closings.”

“These are our schools, our children’s schools. The government of the slogan ‘Put Children First’ just demonstrated one more time that it’s just that – an attractive slogan they’re not willing to live by.”

The Teachers Federation supported the parents 100% and wants to recognize this humble community for its big heart, says Martinez.

“We want to show the world what a true revolutionary is. Che Guevara once said that the “true revolutionary is guided by a deep love feeling.’ These parents showed him to be true.”

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MORE ON PUERTO RICO:

 –‘Pay Our Special Education Teachers Before Vulture Capitalists’ Demand Puerto Rican Protesters

 

Hundreds Gather in Puerto Rico on Martin Luther King Day Demanding Arts Education

 

Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

 

In Puerto Rico, Students Go On Strike to Stop Teacher Relocations

 

Parents and Children Occupy Puerto Rican School Refusing to Let Corporate Vultures Raid Its Contents

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7 thoughts on “The Theft of a Great American School: José Meléndez Ayala Elementary

  1. Diariamente en Puerto Rico se esta destruyendo la educación publica. Pero con la Esc. José Meléndez Ayala es una falta de respeto a los maestros, padres y estudiantes. Las luchas magisteriales en Puerto Rico son el diario vivir el gobierno de Puerto Rico quiere imponer las “Charter Schools” en contra de los derechos adquiridos y Constitución.

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  2. Another preview of the future of the United States as a greedy, power hungry oligarchy ruled by the NOT elected 0.01%, who are only in it for the profits, and the people are all considered widgets and numbers to serve their goals and agendas.

    I think it is time to revisit Patrick Henry’s, “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” and then buy ammo and load our firearms for the civil war ahead between the 0.01% and the fools and puppet loyalists to the rich and famous that support them, and the rest of us.

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    • Lloyd,

      Do you know if CalSTRS owns any assets that will be valueless if the various entities in Puerto Rico refuse to honor their promise to pay the money they borrowed back? (Here is a link to the bond like assets that CalSTRS owns: http://www.calstrs.com/investment-table/bondsmortgage-backedasset-backed-securities . It was too long a list for me to go through to look for Puerto Rico related debt, but you will see many familiar names like Countrywide, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Bear Sterns, Barkley’s Bank, Bank of America in the list)

      How big a hit on your retirement benefits are you willing to take so that the good people of Puerto Rico can renege on their obligation to pay bondholders back. Would a 10% drop in your pension payment be too much?

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      • TE,

        It is obvious that you are totally ignorant and know nothing about CalSTRS. CalSTRS has assets of about 186.1 Billion as of December 31.2015, and according to—as long as the greedy, power hungry neo-conservatives, libertarians and/or neo-liberals don’t change the law in California or the nation to strip already retired teachers of their legal protection—the law mandates that retired teachers get paid as guaranteed by the state and federal government.

        For instance, CalSTRS, like pension funds worldwide, took a hit due to the 2007-08 global recession, but it did not go bankrupt and it never missed a payment even when losing much more than 10% of its total value thanks to the greed and corruption on Wall Street and from U.S. Banks.

        CalSTRS has historically been a sound system, and until the market collapsed, CalSTRS had consistently met or exceeded its assumed rate of return. Even under current economic conditions, CalSTRS is about 71 percent funded and has sufficient assets and projected contributions to pay benefits until 2044. If I’m still alive at age 99, I don’t think I’m going to lose any sleep that my CalSTRS retirement is going to stop paying me.

        When they say 71% funded, that means they have enough cash on hand to meet projected obligations to pay benefits until 2044. If fully funded, that date would add more a lot more years to the projection.

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      • Lloyd,

        CalSTRS depends on the institutions that have issued the bonds that it owns to keep their promises and pay the money that they owe to CalSTRS. The legal protection that is most important to you is that the people who issued the bonds that CalSTRS owns will actually pay the money that was originally promised.

        Lets take a concrete example. CalSTRS owns about $32,000,000 in Bank of America bonds that mature on 1/24/2022 (You can look this up in the link I provided). Those bonds have that value because Bank of America has promised to pay periodic interest payments to the owner of the bonds and give the owner of the bond $28,000,000 on 1/24/2022. If Bank of America were to renege on that promise, the bond has no value, and your pension becomes harder for CalSTRS to pay. If all of the bond issuers renege on their promises to the bondholders, your pension fund will lose the value of all the bonds that it holds.

        CalSTRS does not have enough cash on hand to pay benefits until 2044. They currently only hold 1.8% of their assets as cash (It is not really cash, but things that are like short term bonds that pay some interest). About 57% of the assets are invested in ownership shares of businesses around the world through global stock markets, about 16% is invested in bonds like the Bank of America bond I talked about above, 10% in private equity (ownership of companies not through public stock markets, the sort of thing hedge funds do), and about 13% in real estate (Did you know that the rents paid by the stores in Hill Country Galleria help pay your pension?).

        Like

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