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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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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