The continuing past

February 15, 2020

 

  Saipan — So far, the news headlines here are about the Public School System’s funding woes; unhappy teachers who are on the verge of staging protest actions; lawmakers critical of the governor; government-funded travels; a federal investigation involving a casino; and corruption allegations.

 

As usual, those who believe that we are living in the worst of times are unaware of what actually happened in the past.

 

Forty years ago, teachers gathered outside the CNMI House of Representatives, which was then located in the Civic Center area on Beach Road, to demand a pay raise. According to Marianas Variety’s front-page story on Jan. 10, 1980, “All but two Saipan schools were closed…when 90% of the teachers called in ‘sick’ so…they could attend a session of the House…to urge its members to override the governor’s budget veto.” The vetoed budget included a pay raise for teachers. “But with barely a quorum…acting Speaker Pete Nakatsukasa issued warrants to arrest any absent [House member] who could be found on Saipan and bring him or her to the afternoon session. The effort failed, and the House adjourned….”

 

Undeterred, the president of the Saipan Teachers Association said they would call in sick again on the following day to “discuss strategy.” The superintendent of schools, Loran Kaprowski, said all but Tanapag and San Roque schools were shut down when the teachers called in sick. He said “teachers may take three sick days a year.” 

 

In the House chamber, Speaker Oscar C. Rasa “lambasted the absent…members for not having the courage to explain their positions and cast their vote.” He said “it all boils down to a struggle for power,” referring to the “battle of the budget” between the CNMI’s first governor, Carlos S. Camacho, a Democrat, and the Legislature, both houses of which were controlled by the Territorial Party (which would later re-name itself the Republican Party).

 

Rasa “also questioned whether the travel costs of some absent members were paid by the executive branch or a Japanese investor.” He noted that all House members knew that the session had been scheduled for at least two weeks. The Senate had already voted 6-3 to override the governor’s veto. The 14-member House needed 10 votes to complete the override process, but only eight showed up for the session.

 

Variety reported that the House chamber was “packed with teachers who had tacked up posters on the wall reading: ‘Schools Lack Supplies,’ ‘No Money, No Education,’ ‘Schools Need More Facilities’ and ‘Low Wages Do Not Attract Local College Graduates Into the Teaching Profession.’”

 

During the session, the “audience was mostly listening quietly, but broke into applause when [acting Speaker] Nakatsukasa ordered the arrest of [the] absent…members under a parliamentary device known as a Call of the House. Warrants were to be served on the members who could be found on Saipan but none were located. One…had just boarded a plane to Guam…, the [sergeant-at-arms] reported later.” The vetoed budget amounted to $31.6 million or about $4 million more than the 1979 budget. At the time, the two-year-old Commonwealth had a small population and an even smaller economy. The CNMI government budget was heavily dependent on federal dollars.

 

On Jan. 17, 1980, Variety reported that the “striking Saipan teachers were to meet with Gov. Carlos S. Camacho and other Commonwealth officials…to seek an end to the walkout that has closed island schools since last [week].” The teachers’ grievances included “lack of classrooms, poor lighting and ventilation of classrooms, lack of janitorial services, overcrowded classrooms.” The teachers were also unhappy about “late arriving buses, obsolete curriculum, lack of school nurses or first-aid personnel, unsanitary drinking fountains….”

 

In addition, the teachers wanted “amnesty for all who participated in the demonstrations or strike.” Variety reported that the education superintendent had served notice on teachers that they would be placed on unauthorized leave without pay for each day of the strike. “The teachers had called last Thursday’s and Friday’s walkout a ‘sick-out’ but by Monday called it a strike.” The superintendent said 184 teachers walked out, affecting 3,915 students. “We understood and can identify their concerns,” he added, “but there are other ways to achieve their goals.”

 

Variety reported that the teachers and Territorial Party members “had been angered when several members of the House…were absent and a scheduled session on a vote to override the governor’s budget veto was not held because fewer than the required two-thirds majority (10 votes) was present.”

 

Variety added that the governor’s Finance director was questioned about the travel authorization granted by his boss to lawmakers for trips to Manila, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Rasa said he had asked the Attorney General’s Office “to investigate if the executive branch’s action constituted a misuse of public funds, bordering on bribery.”

 

Also in the news: “Grand Jury In Recess to March.” Variety reported that although “David Scott, a U.S. Justice Department attorney in charge of presenting the evidence, was not permitted to disclose any details of the investigation, it is generally believed to concern alleged bribery of Commonwealth officials to permit casino gambling here.”

 

  Zaldy Dandan is editor of the CNMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety, and author of three books available on amazon.com

 

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