(SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) — Puerto Rico is closing 184 public schools in a move expected to save millions of dollars amid a deep economic crisis that has sparked an exodus to the U.S. mainland in the past decade, officials said Friday.
An estimated 27,000 students will be moved elsewhere when their schools close at the end of May, Education Department spokeswoman Yolanda Rosaly told The Associated Press.
No further details were immediately available. Rosaly said Education Secretary Julia Keleher would provide more details soon.
The announcement about the schools’ closure was just latest news this week that saw the U.S. territory take an unprecedented step into federal court to restructure a portion of its $73 billion debt.
Many economists had anticipated the island’s move Wednesday to seek a bankruptcy-like process amid a 10-year recession, but it is impossible to predict what lies ahead.
The school shutdown announced Friday will be the largest mass closure of schools in the history of the U.S. territory. Officials shuttered 150 schools over the span of five years from 2010 to 2015.
Opponents of previous school closures say that transportation logistics and special education needs were not taken into account. An estimated 30 percent of Puerto Rico students receive specialized education, twice the average in the U.S. mainland.
Puerto Rico currently has a total of 1,292 public schools that serve 365,000 students. The island has seen its school enrollment drop 42 percent in the past three decades, and an additional 22 percent drop is expected in upcoming years, according to a report that the Boston Consulting Group submitted to the previous administration to help restructure Puerto Rico’s education system.
Much of the drop was the result of parents moving to the mainland U.S. in search of jobs and a more affordable life, as well as thousands of teachers being recruited from the island for their bilingual skills.
The island’s low birth rate also is expected to keep driving down enrollment.
In related news on Friday, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain from Southern District of New York was designated as the presiding judge in Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy-like case.
The judge will ultimately decide how and which Puerto Rico assets will be distributed to bondholders.
The decision to resolve a portion of the debt in court is the largest effort ever made by a U.S. government to shield itself from creditors. It’s unknown how long the bankruptcy-like process will take, although local government officials believe it could be resolved in four years.
Puerto Ricans already have been hit with new taxes, higher utility rates and cuts to public employee benefits, among other things. Many people have also struggled to find jobs on an island of 3.4 million people with an unemployment rate that has hovered around 12 percent. Nearly 450,000 people have left for the U.S. mainland in the past decade to flee the crisis.
Overall, Puerto Rico has $73 billion in public debt accumulated in part by previous administrations borrowing money to cover budget deficits. By comparison, the U.S. city of Detroit had less than $20 billion in debts when it filed for bankruptcy in 2013, which was the biggest U.S. municipal bankruptcy ever.
The control board said the move to restructure a portion of the debt in court will help Puerto Rico gain access to the capital markets after credit rating agencies downgraded the island’s debt to junk status in recent years.