By Edwin K. Propst
Once upon a time, on the beautiful island of Saipan, there was a group of persons, highly trained and skilled in diverse vocations, who were gathered together by a visionary leader who saw a great need to train CNMI locals in vocational education. This visionary knew the contract worker program would soon end in the CNMI, and time was of the essence to replace highly skilled guest workers with highly skilled local workers. Thus the Northern Marianas Trades Institute was founded and, by 2018, it had become a not-for-profit education and vocational training institute.
It must be remembered that the seeds for this activity were planted by an earlier pioneer for adult vocational education in the CNMI, namely Tony Pellegrino, who was assisted in this endeavor by Vic Cepeda, former principal at Marianas High School and voc ed advocate. Also not to be forgotten is the support by former CNMI Governor Eloy Inos, as well as the direction and support from NMTI’s board of directors, chaired by John “Bolis” Gonzales.
Led by CEO Agnes McPhetres, who was the former president of the Northern Marianas College and had more than 50 years of educational management experience under her belt, the NMTI employees lobbied the CNMI Legislature to turn the Northern Marianas Trades Institute into an autonomous public institution, which would be named the Northern Marianas Technical Institute. One of the benefits of this change to make NMTI a government entity would be that NMTI would be able to apply for federal grants and federally funded student scholarships as well as student financial aid.
Sen. Justo Quitugua agreed with McPhetres and the NMTI employees and introduced Senate Bill 20-106, a bill that would transform NMTI from a non-profit educational institution into a government public institution. This bill passed the House and Senate and became Public Law 20-92.
McPhetres and her NMTI team worked hard during this transition into a government public institution, and through McPhetres, Ross Manglona, Frank Rabauliman, and NMTI instructors and staff, they were able to secure a whopping $10.3 million Economic Development Administration grant! They were also able to secure $7 million in Housing and Urban Development funding! What amazing accomplishments!
And how were they rewarded?
They were terminated, or fired, by the new board of trustees under chair Mario Valentino. One trustee who objected to firing the CEO and NMTI employees was Rick Kautz, who believed the employees should transition in and be kept at NMTI.
So why were they fired? Chair Valentino and a majority of the trustees claimed the employees under NMTI were now civil service employees and must “re-apply” for their old jobs, despite the fact that they were the ones responsible for NMTI’s success and the more than $17 million in federal funding they were able to secure. Chair Valentino and the trustees cited an opinion from the Office of the Attorney General. Unfortunately, the Office of the Attorney General issued two opinions, which conflicted with each other.
What Chair Valentino and the trustees failed to do was to simply look at CNMI case law and a CNMI Supreme Court ruling.
Under Northern Marianas College v. Civil Service Commission, 2007 MP 8, an NMC employee was terminated from his job and he appealed to the Civil Service Commission. The CSC and NMC went to battle in the Superior Court, and CSC claimed they had jurisdiction with regard to NMC employees.
“After multiple hearings and procedural battles in the Superior Court, the Supreme Court ultimately held that NMC is a fully autonomous agency under the CNMI Constitution, and is thus exempted from the civil service system. The Court reasoned that the CNMI Constitution granted NMC the power to fully control the administration of its affairs, and that NMC was empowered to make its own employee termination decisions without the CSC’s review. Thus, the Court held that NMC’s decisions are not appealable to the CSC.” (The Northern Mariana Islands Judiciary: A Historical Overview, page 58).
This was a CNMI Supreme Court ruling, in which the high court recognized and proclaimed NMC’s full autonomy and ability to hire and fire its employees, and that the CSC could not interfere with their decisions.
So what is the difference between NMTI and NMC? If NMTI is fully autonomous just as NMC is, why must NMTI go through the Civil Service Commission?
The truth is, it is insulting that these hardworking, amazing employees and instructors suddenly must apply for their “old” jobs. They are credentialed, have institutional knowledge, and were an asset to NMTI, yet they are being treated like cattle.
If anything, McPhetres and NMTI employees are victims of their own success. They were the ones responsible for bringing in $17 million in federal funding, and now they will have no place in seeing how it will be spent.
It is no secret that one of NMTI’s most valuable employees, Ross Manglona, was also a critic of the Torres administration. Should his political views affect his employment? Only in a banana republic. Sadly, this is what the CNMI is becoming.
In its quest to wipe the slate clean and establish a first rate vocational/technical institution, one must ask, are the board of trustees throwing the baby out with the bath water?
This fairy tale is far from over. These employees have the option to sue for their old jobs back, but at what cost? At their own personal expense? How can they afford an attorney right now, given the fact they are no longer gainfully employed? Do the NMTI trustees consider the fact that these employees can no longer feed and provide for their families?
The oft-used fairy tale ending, “And they lived happily ever after,” will have to be postponed for now. It is up to the good people of the CNMI to determine their own ending to this and many other tales.
Un dangkulu na si yu’us ma’ase, ghilissow, salamat po, thank you CEO Agnes McPhetres, Ross Manglona, Frank Rabauliman, and all NMTI staff and instructors for your vision, your hard work, your perseverance, and grit. You are the heroes in my book.
Edwin K. Propst is a member of the CNMI House of Representatives