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Senate hearing reveals legal problems with Scholarship Board

fili@samoanews.com

A Senate Government Operations Committee hearing last week with the government Student Financial Aid (Scholarship) Board found the board’s chairman has yet to be confirmed by the Senate and furthermore, the new board does not yet have any set policies.
 
Committee chairman Sen. Galeai Tu’ufuli called the hearing to discuss some issues that had surfaced in the Senate following concerns from senators themselves, as well as those voiced by the public.
 
One of the concerns dealt with the $650,000 allocated in fiscal year 2013 for the scholarship program, which was included in the $3 million re-program bill submitted last September by the Lolo Administration. That bill was automatically defeated after the Senate opted to table it due to lack of information.
 
Galeai told Scholarship board members who were able to attend the hearing that he was surprised to see the $650,000 being reprogrammed, while there are still students in need of financial support to further their education. He said the only reason money is reprogramed for other purposes is when the department or a specific program doesn’t need it anymore.
 
“And does the board need this money?” he asked and also inquired if anyone on the board knew anything about this money being reprogrammed, to which board member Rep. Tu’umolimoli Saena Moliga responded that the money is still being held in an account at the Bank of Hawai’i and they only knew about the available funds after the decision was made on student applications. He also said this is a new board, and the previous board was not aware of this issue.
 
Non-voting board member, Education director Vaitinasa Dr. Salu Hunkin-Finau said it's very difficult for her to provide a direct reply because there are students in college under the financial aid program, and there are new students seeking financial assistance. She said the board is concentrating their efforts on obtaining financial help for students.
 
Galeai then asked if the board has any set policies, as this is required by law for this board. He said these policies are important to guide the board in its mission heading forward, including the use of allocated funds from the government.
 
Another non-voting board member and board secretary, Sonny Thompson, who is also the director of the Department of Human Resources, responded they are currently using policies from the previous board but at the same time, they plan to consult with the governor’s attorney for help in drafting and setting up policies.
 
The board however did provide documents to the committee, to which Galeai blatantly told the board, “these papers given to the committee are not policies” and he suggested the board suspend any current policies from the previous board until new policies are in place.
 
“You need to set solid policies in accordance with the law,” Galeai said and suggested the board consult with a government attorney to help draft and approve all policies.
 
Sen. Laolagi F.S. Vaeao pointed to the fact that the Rev. Vaitautolu Kalepo, the board chairman, has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Laolagi also said he is concerned about decisions made by the board if not all of their members have been confirmed, and this is especially important for the board chairman.
 
Galeai agreed and noted only confirmed members should attend board meetings and vote on decisions. He requested the board convey to the Lolo administration the need to have Kalepo’s name submitted to the Senate for confirmation. (Kalepo, already confirmed by the House, was off island during last year’s Senate confirmation hearings.)
 
“It’s not proper to call the board when not all of their members are confirmed by the Senate,” Galeai said, and again urged the board to get legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office.
 
The Senate opted to postpone another hearing for the scholarship program until these issues are resolved.
 
Another issue that surfaced at the hearing was the problem students are having in seeking a student loan, given the fact that they had been accepted by accredited off-island colleges and universities, but their grade point average does not meet the required 3.0. (See Tuesday’s edition for more details).
 
When Attorney General Talauega Eleasalo Ale appeared last Friday in a separate Senate hearing Galeai asked the AG to please provide one of his attorneys to assist the scholarship board on its decisions and help them set the right policies.
 
For example, Galeai said the law is clear when it comes to student loans — the “financial need” of the student is the only requirement for a loan, while the board is basing their decision on academics, saying the student's GPA should not be below 3.0.
 
Galeai said it’s already half-way through the current school year and there are still issues the board needs to address, and the AG’s Office should lend a helping hand.



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