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Administration says new law set Guam public schools up for failure

Updated: Jul 17, 2023

By Pacific Island Times News Staff

A new public law aimed at accelerating the repair of public schools by setting a deadline for sanitation inspections will result in the closure of several public schools, according to the governor's office.

According to a statement from the governor's office, Public Law 29-37 has tied the administration's hands. The measure, which was authored by Sen. Chris Barnett, lapsed into law in March without the governor's signature.

The governor's office also suggested that the new law resulted in a distorted legal relationship between the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Public Health and Social Services.

Attorney General Douglas Moylan has begun prosecuting public health officials for "wrongful issuance of sanitary permits" to the Guam Department of Education without inspections.

"Because of this, DPHSS is requesting legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General, which also serves as Public Health’s legal counsel," the governor's office said.

"Specifically, DPHSS has requested guidance regarding the path forward for inspections and sanitary permitting for all affected establishments, including hotels, restaurants, and mortuaries, in light of personnel shortages at the agency," the governor's office said.

Administration officials noted that prior to the bill's passage, representatives from the Department of Public Health and Social Services warned that Barnett's measure would disrupt the opening of schools for the upcoming school year.

Public health officials said it would take approximately 528 working days to complete inspections for all 66 permitted schools on the island.

"The Guam legislature, however, passed the unreasonable law–unanimously. The administration and DPHSS are working feverishly to inspect as many schools as possible," the governor's office said.

"However, even with the best efforts put forth by public health inspectors, it is anticipated that many campuses will exceed the allowable demerits for a passing inspection. Most recently, Adacao Elementary School and John F. Kennedy High School received 'D ratings after their public health inspections," the governor's office said.

Before the enactment of the new law, the governor's office said, public schools had five years to comply with new sanitary regulations.

"When Public Health established these new sanitary regulations, GDOE asked for more time to come into compliance and was granted five years. This would have allowed our schools until June 2024 to come into compliance," the governor's office said. "Barnett’s bill, however, changed this and instead mandated GDOE to comply with new regulations before this upcoming school year."

In refusing to sign the bill into law, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero reiterated public health officials' concerns and the "impracticable timelines" imposed on the department.

"In addition to school inspections, DPHSS is responsible for completing 12,000 annual compliance inspections for nearly 3,000 permitted establishments islandwide," the governor's office said.

While having limited authority over the education department, the governor said she is "gravely concerned for the safety and well-being of our students on school campuses."

"While she is working with DPHSS to address their years-long efforts to recruit additional inspectors, Gov. Leon Guerrero has also ordered line agencies to assist with GDOE’s procurement challenges for renovating and maintaining school facilities," the governor's office said.

Moylan is planning a roundtable discussion on the island’s “school reopening problem,” but the governor is not inclined to show up.

"While the roundtable discussion is a nice idea, the necessary solution lies with the Guam legislature, which passed this uncompromising and unreasonable law in the first place, and possibly with the Attorney General’s Office, which has broad prosecutorial discretion in all criminal matters but appears determined not to apply it in this matter," the administration said. "Since the legislature created this problem, the real solution lies with them."

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