PHILIPSBURG — On Monday December 11th, the government represented by Minister Jacobs and supported by the Department of Education and the Divisions of Inspection and Exams met with members of the Board of USM foundation represented by President Mrs. Giterson-Pantophlet, Vice President Wycliffe Smith, member Marcella Henry and MFO Robert Judd in what the Ministry expected would be the final meeting to come to an agreement regarding saving the University from imminent closure and all the negative consequences thereof.
After almost 2 weeks of discussion and correspondence back and forth about the MOU it appeared last Friday that the USMF board was prepared to accept the proposed financial injection of 3 monthly installments of 230K guilders to get classes restarted, however that was not the case.
On Friday, while the Ministry prepared for a meeting to fine tune the agreement and further explain how the feedback of Legal Affairs and USM was worked out in the document, USM handed us a letter and postponed the meeting to discuss further with other board members not present.
The Ministry taking USM’s concerns into consideration, further tweaked the MOU in USM’s favor, conceding that due to the emergency the injection would be free and clear of any deductions, and that the study financing tuition and other fees (balance 2015/2016) due would still be paid as well, including the current subsidy USM continues to receive (Ang. 63,750 monthly) without living up to the obligations for such.
Financially, USM would receive 230K after the MOU was signed (CoM will render a decision this week and payment would occur shortly after). The second payment would take place on January 8, with the third payment in February. The University would also bill government as usual for the students who receive study financing as soon as they could start which could be between 170-200K depending on the number of students.
The University is further expected to cooperate with SOAB to do the financial review of their books from 2013-2016, as well as allow an investigation into the financial management and structure of USMF and its affiliates (USMEF, MDC N.V) and provide recommendations to restructure it to improve accountability, efficiency, transparency and management of USM in relation to its usage of public funds and guaranteeing quality education.
Once financial statements are completely reviewed and approved by SOAB, USMF would also be eligible to receive the 10% withheld (170K).
USM is also expected to report monthly on the usage of the funds to avoid it being used for old debts, and to ensure that funds are used to be able to execute the core objectives of the university – Education.
USM had mentioned in its closure options presented to the Minister in writing the possibility for the USM Endowment Foundation to secure a loan to pay off debts and and so this also was included in the MOU to ensure that the new injection of funds would not be used for this purpose.
USM was also to submit all necessary documentation in order for the Ministry to process an increase in structural subsidy request (madeNovember 2, 2017) of 3 million guilders per year by January 31 in order for the Ministry to have time to prepare the advice for a decision by March 30. This increase would remain in place until the Higher Education Ordinance could go Into effect or until further increase are requested.
Government also highlighted the finalization of the Higher Education Ordinance as a high priority with deadline December 2018.
USM demanded that it be at Parliament by June 2018, which the Minister and Dept Head of Education Lacorbiniere-Hodge explained to the president and representatives why that was not possible in the current situation as collaboration with Legal Affairs is necessary for vetting. The Ministry is also seeking technical assistance to aid with the legal advice for this and other ordinances.
A formation plan of its staffing and the hiring of an Dean and President were also expected with the restart of the semester.
All this was presented with the intention to immediately inject much needed funds, provide assistance with reporting, recommendations for restructuring, increase efficiency, move towards a higher structural subsidy, and the finalization of Higher Education Ordinance to promote quality Higher Education on St. Maarten at USM.
USM sat down in the meeting on Monday and after a few introductory words by the Ministry handed over the letter stating they would stick to their decision of November 23 and close the University as the offer from government was too late, was not sufficient, and they could not restart in January as there was no registration in November and holidays were approaching.
No matter what efforts were made to discuss the points of disagreement within the MOU, USM stuck to its gameplan and refused the offer.
USM stated in its letter that the only viable options to restart were:
- Get sufficient funds (we offered what had been asked in the MOU and their regular subsidy never stopped)
- Get a structured increase (that was offered as well in the MOU)
- Guarantee the Higher Education Ordinance by June 2018 (we have it as priority in the MOU with a deadline of December 2018)
In conclusion, USM has decided to jeopardize the futures of all students currently unable to continue their studies or start in January and put the employment of their employees further at risk in order to prove that they are right and the government, which should have finalized legislation for Higher Education, caused their demise.
Government of St. Maarten stands firm in its resolve and commitment to assist USM to survive as it is the only opportunity for many for higher education on the island. Government pledges to continue to support and increase support to USM, however, in a transparent, efficient and effective manner where accountability is adhered to. Government is of the opinion that dialogue on this matter was prematurely cut off by USMF and hopes USMF rethinks its position and the weight of their decision to refuse government’s offer – unless they have a better offer which they have not enlightened us about.
For the record, USM did inform in writing that one of the six options available including filing for Moratorium was “Negotiating with the incoming coalition to restart USM …” – this statement would require much explanation as that date is not yet known and the same Ministry and departments would have to advise the new Minister as well.
The general public and USMF is reminded that the land on which the University stands is leased land from Government and Government’s permission is needed to transfer such assets or take loans/mortgages on it. So any other plans would require transparency towards government.
USMF is also further reminded that as long as they continue to not hold classes that their current subsidy can be suspended or stopped according to the subsidy ordinance pending further agreements.
These are all scenarios government has avoided over the years including post Irma in the interest of continuity of the institution and the important role it plays in the community. The USMF board should seriously consider the consequences of its actions to the students, staff and community of St. Maarten.
USM has submitted a request in the afternoon of December 12th to meet with the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport where they plan to revisit and discuss the proposed MOU again. The meeting request has been honored and will take place on wednesday December 13th 2017.