Misuse of multi-billion peso school fund takes its toll on quality education

Gigi Grande, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 18 2017 09:27 PM | Updated as of Apr 19 2017 09:22 PM

SEF is very prone to corruption, says a former finance undersecretary 

AT the Lacson Elementary School in Manila, students must contend with many issues.  The school has a population of 2,800 students, way past its capacity of 1,800. There are neither enough classrooms nor enough armchairs. They hold classes in the hallways or on the street. With no solid barriers between classes, the noise is distracting. With electric fans broken, ventilation is poor; the heat can be stifling.

Poor concentration, poor comprehension

"You need a certain level of comfortability in order to concentrate," said Associate Professor Fe Nava of the UP College of Education and a specialist in Applied and Cognitive Psychology.  "Kung mainit o maingay o naguguluhan ang estudyante, paano sya makakapag-concentrate?"​ she said. "And if you cannot concentrate, affected talaga ang comprehension. So where is the quality of education there?"  Problems like those at Lacson Elementary School persist in many other public schools in the country.

The problems should not have been severe, according to public finance expert Milwida Guevara, if only the Special Education Fund (SEF) were used judiciously. 

P106-billion in five years

Few have ever heard of the SEF, created nearly 50 years ago to promote quality basic education in public schools. The fund comes from an additional one percent tax on real property collected by local government units.  The higher the fair market value of a property in a province, city or municipality, the higher the SEF collection.

Bataan received the highest SEF among 80 provinces. This is followed by Rizal and Batangas, which are both in CALABARZON. Meanwhile, the three provinces that received the lowest SEF in 2015, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, and Sulu, are all in ARMM.

Some cities like Manila, Makati and Quezon City collect over a billion pesos in SEF each year.

On the other end of the spectrum are cities like Marawi with not even a million pesos.

The cities that received the highest SEF in 2015 are all in NCR. Manila City received the highest, followed by Makati City and Quezon City. Meanwhile, Marawi City in Soccsksargen received the lowest SEF in 2015, followed by Lamitan City, and Guihulngan City.

Nationwide, SEF collections exceeded P106 billion between 2011 and 2015.  Guevara said that was not enough to solve all the problems in basic education, but it should have filled at least some of the gaps left by national government.  "Resources are finite and are never enough. The challenge is, gamitin mo ng tama," said Guevara, a former finance undersecretary. 

Squandered funds?

Under the law, the fund can be used to construct or repair school buildings, facilities, and equipment, purchase textbooks, encourage sports development, and pay for remedial classes, among other things.   An 8-member Local School Board (LSB) decides how to use the fund. The mayor or governor sits as chairman, and an official of the Department of Education is co-chairman.  But through the years, local government and education officials used millions of pesos for expenses that had little or nothing to do with learning. 

"Very prone" to corruption

Guevara said that the fund was vulnerable to misuse.  "SEF is very prone to corruption dahil ang nagdidisburse lang nyan ay LSB. Hindi dumadaan sa public hearing. So pwedeng gastusin ni mayor, o ni superintendent, o pwedeng may collusion kung paano nila gagastusin," she said.  Ignorance is another problem, said Guevara.  ​"Marami pa ding LSB na hindi marunong kung paano gamitin ang SEF, kaya kung saan-saan lang nila ginagamit yun," she said, recalling anecdotes about how the fund was used to purchase refrigerators, cell phones, or air conditioners for the Department of Education's (DepEd) district officials. 

Top collectors 

A review of available reports by the Commission on Audit (COA) for Makati, Manila, Quezon City, Pasig, Pasay and Mandaluyong between 2012-2015 revealed that over P520 million in SEF had been misused, that is, used for purposes other than that for which it was created.  The six cities had consistently collected the highest SEF these past years.  Often, COA took issue on the use of the SEF to pay for utilities, teachers' allowances and honoraria in excess of the allowable limit, and salaries of non-teaching personnel.  COA said that while these expenses were not unlawful, these should not have been charged to SEF, but to the General Fund, the Personnel Fund or the DepEd budget.  But there were other instances when the SEF could have been used more judiciously. 

Mandaluyong: P1.5 million

In 2015, COA questioned Mandaluyong's use of P1.5 million of the SEF for a Christmas party, a Duckpin competition, and cash incentives for Outstanding Educators. 

Manila: P11 million 

In 2013, the COA noted that Manila used P11 million of its SEF on flowers, food, and drinks served during graduation ceremonies and other events .  Manila public schools have been suffering from a "moderate" classroom shortage since 2011, based on DepEd data. 

Pasay: P21.6 million

P21.6 million of Pasay City's SEF was released to purchase notebooks and school bags, which the COA said were "not among the allowable maintenance and other operating expenses chargeable against SEF." 

Makati: P7.2 million

Some P7.2 million of Makati's SEF also went to the excess procurement of 31,500 workbooks. 

Quezon City: P7.5million

Some P7.5 million of Quezon City's SEF went to donations to the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, public school teachers, uniforms of the Drum & Lyre Corps, and transportation to conferences in 2012, even if DepEd records show the City's public schools have had a "severe" classroom shortage since 2011.

COA reports are replete with other examples of how the SEF has been misused across the country. 

Political pressure

While Guevara pointed to ignorance or corruption as the main reasons for the misuse of the fund, DepEd Assistant Secretary Tonisito Umali offered politics as another explanation.  "This is the exception rather than the rule," Umali said, "pero may mga naparating sa amin ang schools division superintendent na minsan, napipilit sila ni mayor, pine-pressure sila na dalhin ang pondo sa isang bagay na alanganin. At kapag hindi pumayag, sila ay nirereklamo, pinapalitan."  This is especially true​, he said,​when an official intends to run for re-election. The local chief executive might suggest that the fund be used for goods that could help the campaign.  "The schools division superintendents are expected to be very active in engaging local chief executives, so this shouldn't happen. Kung mangyari ito ay nakakalungot​," he said.​ 

Easier said than done?

But Mayor Herbert Bautista of Quezon City said finding a solution to the problems of basic education was much easier said than done, even as his city has been collecting over P1-billion in SEF each year for the past five years.  "Walang available land. Kung may classroom, magdadagdag ka ng teacher, ng tubig for the CR (comfort room), ng kuryente, ng security para hindi manakawan yung mga estudyante. And that requires x amount on a monthly basis. So it's not that easy," Bautista said.

He may as well speak for the other local chief executives whom COA had asked to explain when he said the enforcement on the use of SEF was inconsistent and has evolved through the years. "So nung sinabi ni COA na bawal yan, Ok. Bawal yan. " 

"More Clarity"

The Mandaluyong School Board's Secretary Rex Ado also raised the need for more clarity on what the SEF may and may not be used for.  Ado said it takes seriously COA observations and complied with recommendations, adding it no longer uses the SEF for Christmas parties, the Duckpin competition and cash incentives for Outstanding Educators. "The Mayor had nothing to do with these expenses, these were initiatives of the other members," he said​.   "And in some cases, the proposed project was for one thing but the funds were spent for something else. We've taken steps so it does not happen again,​" he said.​ 

"Not disallowed"

In spite of the excess procurement of workbooks, DepEd Makati Superintendent Dominic Idanan insisted the SEF was not misused by the LSB, nor was the purchase disallowed by COA, since the workbooks were used the following school year anyway.  Other local chief executives sought for comment in their capacity as chairpersons of the LSB did not respond to ABS-CBN's query.  Guevara said not all Local School Boards squander the funds, but when they do, the solution could be in the hands of the citizens themselves. It would help if the citizenry demanded more transparency in the way funds are spent, she said.  "COA will see the big expenditures but kailangan talaga community empowerment para kasama yung mamamayan na mag sabi, 'Ang dami dami ng pera bakit kulang ng libro yung mga bata?'' she said.
"Pakinggan mo yung estudyante, magulang, teacher," she advised government and school officials. "Kailangan pumunta ka sa lusak para makita mo talaga kung ano ang paghihirap ng mga bata," she added.  Hearings are being conducted at the Senate to find ways to improve the law that created the fund.