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As an economist with a strong social conscience, Francis firmly believed that one of the greatest services a society can render to the poor is to increase the quality of elementary and secondary school education that the children of the poor can attain in the public schools. He made it his overriding mission to the make the most out of the limited budget that the Government can devote to quality public education. As a practical business economist, he made sure that the increasing budget allocated for education under the Aquino Administration will be spent as cost efficiently as possible. He was glad to observe the macroeconomic phenomenon that the percentage of the expenditures on public education as a percentage of GDP has been on the constant increase under the present Administration. He made sure, however, that the larger budget would be spent as wisely as possible. His target was always to achieve significant savings in every line budget.
-Francis worked to rationalize bidding for school furniture from having different price points for different materials (wood, wood and metal and non-wood/plastic) to just one price point for all types of materials, significantly generating savings for government. Large savings were also achieved in the purchase of educational materials.
-Francis promoted open and competitive bids that attracted new players to participate in government contracts; worked with civil society groups in improving the monitoring and implementation of contracts such as textbook delivery and classroom construction. I have personal knowledge of how the two incorruptible departments, the DPWH and the DepEd, cooperated for the first time in building thousands of classrooms all over the country. In fact the first successful Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects involved school buildings.
-With his sharp skills in finance, he negotiated for the correction of the application of VAT on classroom construction projects resulting to a reduction of 6.25% in contract prices, generating significant savings for the government. Since DPWH is implementing DepEd’s classroom construction projects and VAT should be applied equally on all infrastructure projects, the adjustment in contract price of classroom projects negotiated by Francis led to an adjustment in all other DPWH projects resulting to billions of pesos of savings.
-As mentioned above, under the leadership of Francis, the first PPP project of DepEd was one of the first PPP projects awarded under the Aquino Administration. This was shortlisted/recognized by Partnerships International (UK) as Best Pathfinder Project (the only Asian entry in the category in 2014). A second phase of the PSIP was bid out shortly after the award of the first project. A total of 12,400 classrooms are provided to public schools through this morality.
-He caused the improvements in the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers to Private Education (GASTPE) program which increased subsidies to students form P5,000 per student per year in 2010 to P7,500 per student per year in 2014. He also developed a Voucher program for Senior High School, which promoted greater participation of the private sector in basic education and wider choice for students and their families. To appreciate this development, consider that 90% of elementary school students are enrolled in public schools and 10% in the private sector. In Junior High School, the ratio is 80 to 20, public to private. With the Voucher Program, DepEd aims to achieve a mix of 60 to 40 public to private in Senior High School.
-He pushed for a significant increase in the budgets for operations of public schools: from P7.8 billion in 2010-2012 to P11.4 billion in 2013 which translates to a 46% increase in the budget. IN 2016, if the DepEd budget is approved, the increase would be from P13 billion in 2015 to P17 billion, representing an increase of 33%. The objective is to make more resources available to schools since, under the principle of subsidiarity which Francis learned well at CRC, they know their specific needs best and can immediately respond to these needs. As a management expert, Francis believed in greater school empowerment in which decision making is at the school level.
-Francis was uncompromising against corruption in various areas, especially with the printing of materials and purchase of books. He also addressed with greater vigor the perennial backlogs of classrooms, teachers, textbooks and seats. Although trained as an economist, Francis never succumbed to the management weakness called “paralysis by analysis.” He was a very decisive person.
I am sure there are other accomplishments that have not been included in this enumeration. I made it a point to go to specific details of his efforts to build a culture of integrity and professional competence to single out the Department of Education as an example of the institutionalization of reforms that can survive changes of leadership in the future. Even if we are not lucky in the next Administration to get too many officials with the caliber of Francis in various departments of Government, including at the highest level, I maintain that there are enough institutionalized reforms that have resulted from the persevering efforts of the present Administration to fight corruption. The behavior of public officials will henceforth be examined by many sectors of society, young and old, with a microscope. Future leaders who may not have the same integrity and resolve as Francis Varela, Armin Luistro, or Rogelio Singson will have less freedom to be corrupt.
At the macro level, there are now institutionalized practices as the submission of the Statement of Assets, Liabilities and Networth (SALN) by top government officials; the strict application of the Anti-Money Laundering Act (AMLA); the removal of PDAP and DAP; the more proactive stance of the BIR, COA, and the Ombudsman; the greater vigilance of the private sector through the Integrity Initiative of such associations as the Makati Business Club, the Management Association of the Philippines, the FINEX, and the foreign chambers of commerce, all supplemented by efforts of thousands of millennials who now use social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to monitor the conduct of public officials. These practices will reduce the magnitude of corruption in future governments. Of course, I am assuming that all of us who are working for a corrupt-free society will never lower our guard and will be constantly vigilant to nip in the bud any attempt of dishonest officials, whether in the public or private sector, to steal. That is the least we can do to honor the memory of people like Francis Varela. May his tribe increase. For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.