Monday, October 06, 2008

Need for an Education Suruhanu Questioned

Need for suruhanu questioned:
Speaker says position isn't working as hoped
By Brett Kelman
Pacific Daily News
October 7, 2008

The Office of the Education Suruhanu isn't working as its creators intended, said the legislative speaker.

Yesterday, Speaker Judith Won Pat said the Legislature needed to see more from Education Suruhanu Dominic Terlaje.

Terlaje's office will have been open for five months on Friday.

Won Pat, one of the main authors of the legislation that created the Office of the Education Suruhanu, said the suruhanu was meant to be "aggressive." The position isn't working as the Legislature had hoped, Won Pat said.

"It's unfortunate," she said. "There are some senators who are just feeling that it's not working and that maybe we need to do something with it. Some even suggested totally abolishing it."

Public Law 29-41 created the position to help enforce the Every Child Is Entitled to an Adequate Public Education Act. Terlaje was hired to be a liaison between parents and Guam's leaders, to keep the community informed about deficiencies in public schools.

If parents wish to sue the school system because it doesn't meet the standards of law, the suruhanu must first process their complaint.

"You'd have to probably talk to the speaker to see the intent of why they created this position," Terlaje said last week. "But I think, just as my observation, I think it's because things weren't getting done at GPSS or it just takes a long time."

Terlaje said last week that he spent his first three months as suruhanu -- in which he earned approximately $20,000 -- setting up his office.

According to his monthly reports, Terlaje inspected one school during those three months. He received no tips worth investigating. His office moved from GPSS Central Office to the Governor's Complex at Adelup.

Office setup
"In the beginning -- May, June, July -- was basically, I want to say setting up an office. Because there was no office, there was no equipment, there was no supplies, there was nothing. And so, basically, that took most of my time for the three months," he said. "It was very difficult."

Terlaje's office is now in the former office of first lady Joann Camacho at Adelup. It is an air-conditioned room with two desks, a computer and a copier. Last Wednesday, he was issued a government vehicle.

Won Pat said Terlaje should have spent more time inspecting schools.

"The spending of three months setting up an office to me is extremely long," she said. "That shouldn't have happened. It should have happened in a matter of a couple of weeks."

According to Public Law 29-41, Terlaje's main responsibility is to field complaints from public school parents and students and investigate. Complaints are confidential, but must involve a violation of the Every Child Is Entitled to an Adequate Public Education Act.

Terlaje investigated his first valid complaint in August, according to his monthly reports. Someone complained about wastewater on the Southern High football field, the report states. The field has been closed since March.

Until then, all complaints had been dismissed because they didn't involve the law, according to Terlaje's reports.

Terlaje said he received about 10 complaints in September, mostly involving broken air conditioners.

To inspire more parents to enlist his help, Terlaje held an informational meeting on Sept. 10 in Dededo. Few parents came, he said.

Afterward, Terlaje was invited to a meeting of the George Washington High School parent organization and went to introduce himself. He hoped to attend more parent meetings in the future, he said.

Not working
Joe Atalig, who has two children in public schools, didn't know how to contact the education suruhanu. He didn't know where the office was. And he said he didn't even really know what the suruhanu did.

"I don't think they really publicize that stuff," he said.

Atalig said he wasn't impressed with the progress of the suruhanu or the responsibilities set by public law. He said the lack of results from the suruhanu's first few months in office was proof that the position wasn't working.

"I think it's another thing the government does to waste money. We are paying him to do what? Check one thing every six or five months?" he said.

Terlaje was appointed by Gov. Felix Camacho on April 30, according to Pacific Daily News files. He was a defense attorney.

Neither Camacho nor Lt. Gov. Mike Cruz provided comment, despite a visit to the governor's office last Thursday and several conversations with spokespeople for both the governor and lieutenant governor. Questions submitted through e-mail weren't answered.

Even if he doesn't receive a complaint from the public, Public Law 29-41 gives Terlaje authority to inspect schools at random without notice.

But Terlaje said can't shut down portions of a school and he can't force schools to fix discrepancies he finds.

"Some of the people are saying that this office has no teeth," he said. "But I'm not saying that."

Terlaje also said his random inspections are limited because he doesn't have formal training as an inspector. Without a complaint to investigate, he won't know what to look for, he said.

"I don't have the ability to determine whether or not something is a violation unless somebody complains about it," he said. "If I went into a classroom today or a cafeteria, I wouldn't know the fire codes or public health codes. I couldn't make those assessments."

When asked if he should be trained on health and fire codes, Terlaje said he was given authority to enlist government officials who have that knowledge.

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