San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Wheels on the Bus Seem To Be Coming Off

Thousands of students who return to school Monday after summer break will study in makeshift or crumbling classrooms. Many classes won’t have desks. Some won’t have teachers.
In what has become an annual chronic problem, Education Ministry officials were still scrambling this week to hire instructors  and sign contracts with school-bus companies before nearly 1 million students descend on the schools.
“The beginning of the school year for the Education Ministry is an exercise in how to control Murphy’s Law,” said Minister Leonardo Garnier.
Some 13,000 students won’t have desks, while thousands more will learn in 4,680 makeshift classrooms – for example, the sitting area of a church, said Vice Minister of Education Alejandra Mata.
Even many traditional schools are in bad shape. The ministry has budgeted $74 million for infrastructure this year, but the repair backlog is estimated at up to $180 million, Garnier said.
“What happens? The tanks overflow, the water pipes burst. There are serious sanitary problems. Or there are a lot of bats in a school, and they fill the ceiling with feces,” Mata said. “It’s terrible.”
Other classrooms may be missing teachers.
After the state tried and failed to revamp its hiring system, some 2,800 teaching positions were still unfilled this week. Ministry officials rushed to make last-minute hires.
They also scrambled to sign contracts with 163 bus companies for students in rural areas. Officials had just 15 days to make sure the companies met certain requirements – tax payment, vehicle inspection, insurance – after the Comptroller General’s Office gave them a green light to renew the contracts Jan. 25.
Last year, this process took two months, according to the daily La Nación. If ministry officials do not finish renewing the contracts in time, said press chief Jesús Mora, local school boards will have to figure out how to transport students.
“We are going to have problems. Some students will be sacrificed. They won’t have classes (Monday),” said José Antonio Barquero, president of the National Association of Educators (ANDE).
Teacher appointments have long been shrouded in scandal, as local officials filled spots for personal or political reasons, said Civil Service Director José Joaquín Arguedas.
This year, the Civil Service started a Web site where jobseekers could post their experience, education level, and preferences for teaching positions. Spots were to be assigned according to merit.
But the project was cut short in December, when the Education Ministry said it found errors in the registry and revoked 1,800 job offers. Instead of hiring permanent instructors, the ministry’s personnel department filled vacancies this year with one-year contracts.
Mata said she could not guarantee that politics has played no role in hiring this year.
A committee is now working to correct the online registry, although Mata could not set a timeframe for finishing.
Fewer than 48% of teachers have permanent positions this year, while the rest have one-year contracts. Temporary hires hurt the quality of education, school administrators said, because teachers are less familiar with the school and students, and they feel less secure in their jobs.
Crumbling infrastructure is one of the thorniest problems the ministry faces. After a string of site visits in 2006 and 2007, the Comptroller General issued a report in October decrying the sorry state of the nation’s classrooms.
“The school buildings,” the report stated, “do not ensure…the minimum conditions to protect the life and health of their occupants.”
Part of the problem, according to the report’s authors, is that state funding has been poorly managed. The ministry gave  $45.5 million to the more than 4,000 local school boards to spend on infrastructure between January 2006 and June 2007. By last October, the school boards had spent just 1% of that money, partly because they lacked support from the ministry, the report said.
The ministry recently created the Infrastructure and Educational Equipment Office to help school boards better manage state funds.
Public school is free, but students have to pay for their own books and uniforms – expenses that can range up to $80 per elementary kid and more for high schoolers.
The ministry will give poor elementary school students $18 each to buy school supplies.
But it won’t be enough, acknowledges Anabelle Castillo, who directs equity programs at the ministry.
“We have to strike a balance between coverage and the amount we can distribute,” Castillo said.
Poor elementary school students will also receive $18 a month as an incentive to stay in school, while poor high school students will get between $30 and $100 a month. The ministry also distributes modest stipends for lunch and transportation.
Parents and children flocked to stationary stores in downtown San José this week to buy notebooks and pencils. Jarod Anchia, 7, wanted notebooks featuring characters from the 2006 animation movie “Over the Hedge,” but his mother, Shirley Valverde, favored the two-for-one notebooks with a logo of the soccer club Deportivo Saprissa.
Asked whether education here was affordable or accessible,Valverde, who works at the department store Hipermás, looked at Jarod’s father and shrugged.“I think we’re OK, for the moment,” she said.

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