Op-Ed: What’s happening to Puerto Rico’s public schools is like another natural disaster
Escuela Superior Madame Luchetti sits in the heart of Condado, surrounded by luxury condominiums offering breathtaking views of Condado Beach. The school’s electric blue columns and period details evoke an image of grandeur now lost to broken windows, graffiti, and uncut grass.
Designed in 1906 by famed Puerto Rican architect Antonin Nechodoma, Madame Luchetti is just one of the hundreds of schools that the Puerto Rico Department of Education has closed and that are now up for sale through a flawed process.
Driven to cut costs under the federally supervised debt restructuring, an obscure new government agency created in October 2019 — the Committee of Evaluation and Disposition of Property (CEDBI in Spanish) — has quietly been selling these properties.
An investigation by the Center for Investigative Journalism details what has happened to some of these properties, like the oceanfront Carmen Gómez Tejera School in the center of Aguadilla, sold to a mainland based real estate firm for $780,000 with plans for a luxury hotel.
CEDBI’s regulations for selling these properties are deeply flawed. CEDBI does not currently publish a list of properties available for sale. Only after a property has been sold is a list with the properties’ status published, and even that list is only updated every six months. This has led to confusion among community groups and nonprofits who are also vying with private investors to take control of these properties.
Developers submit appraisals of their choosing that can be up to two years out of date. CEDBI also relies on its own internal team to vet the appraisals rather than solicit an unbiased third-party appraisal. The current process allows for properties to be sold quickly — the stated goal behind CEDBI’s formation — but arguably at the cost of shortchanging the government what it might garner under a more competitive and transparent sales process.
CEDBI guidelines do also not currently require any community input or public hearings. This has led to properties sitting vacant for months or years without the community knowing what will happen to these properties or when they might be redeveloped.
CEDBI has also undertaken no effort to identify the historical or architectural significance of the properties for sale. Thankfully, the sale of Madame Luchetti was halted after the Puerto Rico Planning Board issued an emergency designation for historical significance. But other schools up for sale might not be so lucky.
The government can modify the regulations to address these issues while still moving expeditiously to repurpose these properties.
To generate maximum interest among both nonprofits and private developers, the government could publish a list of all school properties available for sale that is both easy to find and regularly updated.
To ensure that values reflect the current market, the government could require appraisals be more recent than two years old — say within the past six months. And rather than relying on internal vetting, the government could solicit an additional third-party appraisal and take the higher of the two values.
To discourage speculation and prevent blight, the government could also require developers to make meaningful improvements to a site within a set timeframe, with financial penalties for non-compliance.
The government could also consider partnering with organizations like the American Institute of Architects-Puerto Rico to audit the historical or architectural significance of these properties
For some properties such as Madame Luchetti, the government could also pursue partnerships that preserve public value while generating new, sorely needed tax revenue. One such example of this structure is the Brooklyn Heights Public Library Reconstruction in Brooklyn, New York. In Brooklyn, a decrepit library branch facing over $9 million in unfunded repairs was sold to a private developer.
In exchange for zoning modifications allowing a taller building, the developer included a state of the art 26,000 square foot library in the bottom two floors of the new building. In addition to producing a brand-new library, the project generated $40 million to fund public library projects in other branches.
To be clear, the government needs to close schools. Due in large part to the cascade of natural disasters and the exodus of families from the island, total school enrollment in 2018-19 in Puerto Rico was 307,282, down from 503,635 just a decade prior, a stunning 39% decline.
With the Puerto Rico Department of Education making up $2.5 billion or 25% of the FY21 Commonwealth Budget, school closures are inevitable. But school closures should be an opportunity to create public value and not just a windfall to speculators.
After countless hurricanes and earthquakes, Puerto Rico’s public-school students have faced enough disasters. The sales of their public schools do not need to be another one.