Senator’s lament: It takes 2 years to build 1 classroom
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate basic education panel, said the inability of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) to spend money allocated to it on time had slowed down the construction of classrooms for the Department of Education (DepEd).
“In fact, I did a simple analysis … and I found that it takes them about two years to build classrooms from start to end,” he said on Thursday during deliberations on the proposed P605.74-billion DepEd budget for 2021.
The budget for the classroom building program is lodged in the DepEd under an item called “Basic Educational Facilities,” but it is the DPWH that spends the money for the construction.
The Senate finance committee had earlier cut P10 billion from the P24.5 billion that was set aside for classrooms by the DepEd due to the DPWH’s poor “absorptive capacity,” or an agency’s ability to spend the money it was supposed to use within a fiscal year.
Figures from Gatchalian’s office showed that the DPWH was able to construct only five classrooms out of 2,821 that were planned for this year, which was already reduced from the 5,174 that were targeted for construction in last year’s budget.
Poor record for years
While the slow construction might be partly explained by pandemic-induced lockdowns that hampered procurement this year, Gatchalian noted the DPWH’s similarly poor record even in previous years.
In 2019, only 180 classrooms were constructed out of a target of 4,580, and only 11 units were built in 2018 despite the huge requirement of 28,170 that year, Gatchalian said, citing figures from the DPWH and the national expenditure program.
In 2017, the DPWH did better, constructing a total of 4,116 classrooms against a target of 10,466, while in 2016, it built 195 from the needed 5,030, according to a graph presented by Gatchalian during his interpellation.
According to a June 2 DepEd memorandum, there is a total remaining requirement of 110,954 classrooms for 2021.
School enrollment increases yearly by a net average of 1.5 percent to 2 percent, which is equivalent to an additional 10,000 total classroom requirement, it said.
A total of 150,971 classrooms were constructed from January 2014 to December 2019, according to DepEd data.
Some 33,857 classrooms are under construction by the DPWH.
Released only in June
Gatchalian said the DPWH’s terrible absorptive capacity was the primary reason he recommended a cut in the DepEd’s classroom building program.
“It’s not really the fault of DepEd. But the absorptive capacity of the DPWH is really highly questionable,” he said.
He said Public Works Secretary Mark Villar told him during Wednesday’s deliberations on the DPWH budget that they received the DepEd funds only in June. Gatchalian did not say what caused the delay in the handing of the money from the DepEd over to the DPWH.
Sen. Pia Cayetano, the sponsor of the DepEd budget, disagreed with Gatchalian in cutting the allocation for classroom construction, citing the assessment of experts that infrastructure spending was a major economic driver.
LGUs may do ‘faster job’
Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate finance panel, asked his colleagues whether it was better to devolve the classroom building program to local governments, which might be in a better position to identify where the classrooms should be built.
“Definitely. One of the bottlenecks is construction itself because it’s centralized,” replied Gatchalian.
He noted the “two step-process” in the current setup. “The fund goes to DepEd, and they transfer the fund to DPWH, and DPWH constructs it nationwide. If it’s downloaded directly to LGUs (local government units), the LGUs will probably do a much faster job of constructing,” he said.
“I’m sure the [LGUs] would welcome the opportunity to handle construction, with the timeline and everything,” Cayetano said.
Classroom shortages and large class sizes are perennial problems that have plagued public schools for years.
The teacher-to-student ratio appears to be improving, with one teacher for every 29 elementary students in the 2018-2019 school year.
During the same period, there was one teacher for every 25 and 29 students in junior and senior high school, respectively.
The classroom-to-student ratio, on the other hand, was 1:35 in 2016 and 1:33 in 2017 for elementary students. For high school students, it was 1:43 in 2016 and 1:36 in 2017. —WITH A REPORT FROM INQUIRER RESEARCH
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