Secretary Briones steers DepEd to a new school year full of challenges
Even in her mid-70s, Leonor Magtolis Briones is a pocketful of vibrant energy. She has just returned from a trip to Mindanao, where she received updates and briefings on school children affected by the skirmishes between government forces and the ISIS-affiliated Maute Group. She presides over a well-attended morning press conference to inform the media on the results of that trip, followed by a progress report on how the Department of Education (DepEd) is bracing for the opening of classes.
In the afternoon, she is meeting her entire team, composed of her undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and regional directors to finalize preparations. She takes a 15-minute quick lunch in between a video shoot by PTV and this interview. Her aide was careful to apply lip gloss but she sees the frivolity of it. “What’s important is what comes out of my mouth,” she jested.
But then again, to those who know her, Liling, as she is fondly called by friends and colleagues (appended by ‘Ma’am’ when addressed by younger ones), is known for her no-nonsense rhetoric and straightforward approach. With a sterling life in public service and the academe, she has been called back to government service once more: this time, to be the captain of the ship that holds the biggest budget in national government – the Department of Education.
A proud Negrense who hails from a family of educators and a mentor herself, she brings to the table her goals and plans in making DepEd a fully efficient agency that is transparent, attuned to the needs of its stakeholders, and responsive to the times of innovation.
Return to government service
Briones admitted that she was surprised upon hearing President Duterte announce her name as the new education secretary.
“[He] and I had never met each other all our lives. I was surprised as to why he invited me [to join the Cabinet]. He probably based it on my reputation,” she candidly said.
What she meant by this was her expertise and authority gained from her stint as National Treasurer and as part of the Commission on Audit, and as a professor emeritus at the UP National College of Public Administration and Governance (only one of two who hold that privilege). She also headed Social Watch Philippines, a civil society organization that monitors government policies and key decisions.
Still, she comes prepared as she tackles the department is facing some of its biggest challenges.
“I knew how it tough it was going to be. I came in at a time when DepEd was implementing the law which increased the number of years in basic education from 10 to 12 years. That was also a huge challenge because there is so much resistance to it,” she explained.
She revealed also that President Duterte chose her to help him decide whether he should start implementing the senior high school program, as mandated by law.
“I am for senior high school education, and I was [in favor of] continuing the reforms which were started by my predecessor, Bro. Armin Luistro.”
Unlike other secretaries who bring with them their own team of consultants and experts, she decided to retain many of the key officials in the senior ranks that worked for Luistro. “I am for consultative leadership,” she declared. “Before the turnover [by Bro. Armin], he introduced me to his team of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries and briefed me on the programs that the department started during his administration.”
In the press conference held with officials from other agencies, she cited some of the concerns that the department seeks to address. She admitted that while her department receives the biggest budget, they are saddled with the predicament of underspending, which indicates the complexities that come along with the procurement and bidding processes in government institutions.
Enrollment is also at an all-time high, with an estimated 27 million enrollees expected to troop to schools tomorrow at the start of classes. The perennial problem especially with highly urbanized cities is the overpopulation in schools, with a teacher-to-student ratio as high as 1:80, forcing large schools to conduct three shifts, sometimes on a twice or thrice-a-week attendance schedule.
She also revealed that acquiring real estate property as sites for schools gets more difficult now more than ever.
“It’s no longer fashionable or practical for people with idle lands to donate them to the government,” she lamented. Historically, many public schools were built on lands donated by local landowners. Nowadays, even when approached with higher amounts, lot owners won’t budge.
“If we have a chance to erect school buildings, it would have to be high-rise. But of course, when you build high-rise school buildings, you have to consider the safeness of the structure as you build it.”
On a timely note, she also disclosed that school-age children from Marawi City that are displaced by the ongoing conflict between government and the Maute group number about 5,000. “We cannot turn back children just because the schools have been filled to capacity. That’s why we are discouraging the local governments from turning schools into evacuation centers. Even with conflicts like these, schoolchildren should not be prevented from studying.”
As mom and arts aficionado
Given the enormity of these challenges, Briones still takes pride that an educator like her is at the helm of a very influential government agency.
“I come from a dynasty of educators,” she said, as both her parents were teachers – her mother who is a grade two teacher first taught her to write using banana leaves as paper and sharpened bamboo sticks for writing during World War II; her father was even her teacher in high school.
“We look at [the teaching profession] not as a place where you have a high salary, but you measure success by the kind of impact you make on the lives of people. I still believe it’s a noble profession,” she declared.
Whenever she finds time for herself, she seeks the arts for leisure and relaxation, particularly music.
“Part of my upbringing is in music, arts and culture,” she said. Hailing from Guihulngan, Negros Oriental, she took her bachelor’s degree in business administration and graduated magna cum laude. “I graduated from Silliman University which is well known for its program in arts and culture. I’m the president of Manila Concert Choir and we have regular rehearsals. We hold concerts and travel around the country. It is my way also ‘letting go’, at least focusing on something else other than the challenges of running a huge bureaucracy like the DepEd.”
She added that she also goes to the movies. “I’m very fond of film but I have no more time [right now],” she admitted. She also reads a lot and finds time to spend weekends with her son if she’s not traveling for work.
Despite the challenges, Secretary Briones encourages everyone to take part in making the opening day of classes a great success.
“These are exciting times ahead, especially for the country,” she concluded with a youthful spark in her eyes. “We all have a stake in this. Let us all become experts in education.”