Senate grills DOE Director regarding state of schools
Education Department director Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin-Finau told senators yesterday that DOE has spent $300,000 in the last three weeks — since the first Department of Health inspection report citing problems with ten public schools—to make repairs and necessary upgrades.
“It’s a lot of work that needed to be done,” she said adding that many school buildings are old, a fact acknowledged in a review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its report following their assessment of public schools
She explained the second report by the DOH was presented Tuesday afternoon at the Governor H. Rex Lee Auditorium, where the governor was in attendance along with Parents and Teachers Association officers, school officials, and departments working with DOE in the Adopt-A-School program.
She said the plan at this point is to complete by this Friday all the work that needs to be done to affected schools cited by DOH as well as the work being done by departments under the Adopt A School program. She said the new school year for public schools on Tutuila and Aunu’u will start next Monday.
According to the DOE director, the DOH had given the green light, or ‘code green’ for Manu’a schools to begin their classroom sessions after they were cleared of any violations, and this was the reason Manu’a began the new school year on Monday (Aug. 19), she added.
Vaitinasa was called by the Senate Education/Scholarship Committee to update senators on the status of schools, when they learned the beginning of the new school year for Tutuila and Aunuu had been delayed for another week.
She provided the committee copies of the DOH’s first and second report, as well as a DOE report from the Adopt-A-School program, which includes pictures of bathrooms in deplorable conditions at affected schools and pictures of other problems faced by cooking areas in school cafeterias.
The Adopt-A-School program also includes addressing specific DOH violations for the ten public and two private schools. The affected schools were “code red”, according to the report dated Aug. 12, and this was the information shared by the DOE director with senators.
Senators raised some very serious concerns about the safety and welfare of students based on the pictures and information outlined in the reports from the director.
Sen. Faletagoai I. Tuiolemotu suggested public schools remain closed until all repairs, upgrades and other problems are fixed to ensure the safety of students. He says there is no need to open classrooms when problems exist that must be fixed because such problems impact students’ learning.
“You have the authority to close schools until they are safe,” he added.
Sen. Mauga T. Asuega suggested DOE and the government set up a task force or a committee that includes a certified engineer, to oversee all of the work that needs to be done for all public schools including areas of sanitation.
He says such as panel would work collaboratively with DOE and other agencies to make sure all problems at schools are dealt with in an expeditious manner. Additionally, he suggested the director look at having this work — such as fixing bathrooms and major renovations — done by the private sector and overseen by the task force, who would report to the DOE director.
Mauga said without such a committee in place, DOE will continue to face the same problems.
Responding to questions from the committee, Vaitinasa said the DOE maintenance division has only 15 workers, adding there are large campuses for some public schools.
This information about only 15-workers with DOE maintenance prompted concerns from senators, including Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao, who pointed out that 15 workers for the division is not enough for the large number of public schools in the territory. “And this crew should be on the ball all the time along with school principals,” he pointed out.
Sen. Soliai Tuipine Fuimaono said the issue of maintenance is a very important one, adding that during Vaitinasa’s confirmation hearing as DOE director early this year, he suggested she look at transferring all DOE maintenance to the Department of Public Works M&O Division, which has the engineers and the expertise.
“Too bad you didn’t take my recommendation,” he said and again recommended that the M&O Division take over all maintenance for DOE to prevent these same problems from occurring in the future.
Responding to questions from Sen. Saole Mila, the DOE director said the school lunch program’s Qualify Control conduct inspections of all public school cafeterias and provide reports to the main office.
Saole said the director herself should conduct a full site visit of all public schools and this should have been done during the summer recess and not when students were prepared to return to school.
This was also the same message echoed by other senators, who were disappointed that this issue only came up three weeks ago following the first report by DOH.
Vaitinasa said that after her confirmation by the Fono, she conducted a site visit of all schools except for the elementary schools on Ofu and Olosega islands. From the visit, she discovered some of the urgent needs and a budget was put together with submission to the appropriate ASG agency for the approval of about $60,000.
However, she said she waited and waited but still no approval.
Vaitinasa said it was only after Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga visited Fagaitua High School in late March or early April that serious problems were discovered at the high school, and after that the funding was sped up, as the governor pushed to have the needed repairs done.
If there were funds made available to DOE in February maybe many of these problems would have been addressed, she said and pointed out that lack of maintaining school facilities has been a long standing problem going back several years.
Due to the lack of maintenance over the years, she said, when crews began to paint the buildings, pieces of the wall would fall off; and there were other problems discovered with bathrooms.
“It’s a much bigger job than I anticipated,” she told senators, who were also informed there was no report from the federally-funded school lunch program Quality Control division regarding problems with cafeterias — until the DOH report.
That only raised more concerns from senators, who then suggested there are people working in DOE not doing their jobs, because if they were, these problems would not be surfacing now, when school is supposed to begin.
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