Hagåtña, Guam – The Attorney General of Guam is planning a roundtable discussion on the island’s “school reopening problem.” In an invitation to various stakeholders, Attorney General Doug Moylan stated he wished to discuss “possible options that may be available to provide for an interim solution until the public school facilities can safely reopen” and “the inherent legal problems facing our government and taxpayers if students are once again forced to remain at home and ‘learn remotely.’”
Unfortunately, Senator Chris Barnett’s bill that became Public Law 37-4 has tied the administration’s hands and will result in the closure of numerous public schools. In fact, in their testimony before the Guam Legislature, Department of Public Health and Social Services (DPHSS) representatives warned that, if passed, the law would disrupt the opening of schools for the upcoming school year. Specifically, DPHSS stated 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. 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.
Prior to the enactment of Public Law 37-4, GDOE 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. Barnett’s bill, however, changed this and instead mandated GDOE to comply with new regulations before this upcoming school year.
For these reasons, Governor Leon Guerrero refused to sign the legislation into law. In her statement, she reiterated DPHSS’ concerns and the impracticable timelines imposed on DPHSS. In addition to school inspections, DPHSS is responsible for completing 12,000 annual compliance inspections for nearly 3,000 permitted establishments islandwide.
Additionally, Attorney General Moylan has begun prosecuting Public Health officials for what he describes as the wrongful issuance of sanitary permits to GDOE without inspections. Because of this, DPHSS is requesting legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which also serves as Public Health’s legal counsel. 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.
Governor Leon Guerrero has very limited authority over GDOE. Nevertheless, 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, Governor Leon Guerrero has also ordered line agencies to assist with GDOE’s procurement challenges for renovating and maintaining school facilities. These efforts, however, will not resolve the immediate problems caused by P.L. 37-4.
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. Since the legislature created this problem, the real solution lies with them. For these reasons, Governor Leon Guerrero wrote to Attorney General Moylan, stating she will not attend his roundtable discussion on schools. Instead, she will be focused on providing DPHSS the support it needs to fulfill its mandates.