POSTSCRIPT / November 30, 2006 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why let sore losers delay books for public schools?

WHY MIRIAM?: Somebody from Malacanang whispered to me that Sen. Miriam Santiago’s nomination for the post of Chief Justice was just meant to rattle the Supreme Court justices vying for the position.

Santiago was foisted prominently as a front runner, I was told, to give the jitters to Senior Associate Justice Reynato Puno — who is the leading contender and who had in fact been previously assured of getting the plum position.

President Gloria Arroyo is reportedly having second thoughts with Puno after many of her appointees to the High Court took positions against the Palace on major cases involving constitutional issues.

The desired reaction, it seems, is for Puno and other justices similarly scared by Miriam’s nomination, to telegraph firm assurances to the President that they would stand by her on crucial questions that may be brought before the tribunal.

I doubt if Puno would do that.

* * *

TRO LAPSES: It is well and good that the court’s usual TRO (temporary restraining order) for a major World Bank-assisted textbook project expired Nov. 22.

Now the long-delayed delivery of the books to the country’s public elementary schools can proceed without the sore losers in the bidding getting in the way. If charges are pending, the hearing can continue without depriving school children their books.

Involved here is 2004 money. Those books should have been delivered last year were it not for the usual griping of losing bidders.

The World Bank not only advanced the money. It also checked the integrity of the bidding and the awards. When questions were raised, it checked the facts, and came out with a verdict that everything was in order.

One book for each of five subjects in the public elementary and high schools is replaced every five years. Because of the controversy, their replacement has been set back.

Any further delay will be bad for the school children and the educational system in general.

* * *

GOOD SIGNS: Let us not spoil a good thing while we have it in our hands.

Since the World Bank-assisted international competitive bidding was adopted in textbook procurement for public schools three years ago:

1. Average textbook price has gone down from P100 in 2000 to only P45 now, more or less. This has resulted in savings of around P2.63 billion.

2. The textbook-to-student ratio is now 1-to-1, whereas it was as bad as 1-to-6 before the WB project was initiated.

3. Paper quality has improved by 50 percent, as far as texture, weight, etc. are concerned. This has lengthened the lifespan of a book from two years to four or five years,

4. A four-level evaluation to assure content quality has been scrupulously followed. One level’s work is checked by the next higher level.

5. More than 30 non-government organizations (NGOs) have been keeping watch, helping ensure transparency of the procurement of textbooks, among other supplies.

If there is a cartel or a syndicate manipulating the procurement, how did the above positive developments come about? A syndicate aiming for maximum profits sacrifices quality (price, paper, etc,). The opposite has happened.

* * *

VIBAL AWARD: The World Bank has supervision and final say in the textbooks contract, as provided in the loan contract with the Philippines. We can safely assume it will not allow any hanky-panky.

The award to the Vibal Group was recommended May 30, 2006, by an interagency bids and awards committee (IABAC) chaired by the Department of Budget Management, with the Department of Education, Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Finance as members.

I am surprised the finger of suspicion has been pointed at DepEd considering that DepEd representatives in the interagency committee actually dissented in the granting of the contract to the eventual winner, only they were outvoted.

I understand there are 18 million books for 42,000 public elementary and high schools. Assuming each book costs one dollar, the entire lot will cost $18 million (around P900 million are the current exchange rate).

The bid price, btw, includes providing the content of the books, subject to approval by the proper authorities, and printing them.

The bid winner also commits in its contract to deliver the books to all the elementary schools scattered all over the archipelago. It does not simply dump the books on the front door of DepEd.

* * *

DEMOLITION: The storm swirling around Vibal after it bagged the multimillion-peso textbook contract was whipped up by the disqualified bidders — Rex Bookstore Inc., Daehan Printing and Publishing Co., and Kolonwel Trading.

They filed a complaint before the World Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity based in Washington, DC, against three WB officials who they alleged exerted “undue pressure” on Philippine officials to award the contract to Vibal.

But the group questioned only the reversal of Vibal’s disqualification and not that of the other winning bidder, Daewoo International.

When the grant was awarded in September despite the three publishing firms’ attempts to block it, they embarked on what looked like a demolition job against Vibal.

* * *

LACSON EXPOSE: After the filing of the complaint, Sen. Panfilo Lacson made an expose in the Senate on anomalies hounding the textbook industry.

From 1999 to 2004, according to him, a group of publishing companies that share common officers and stockholders has had a virtual stranglehold on contracts for the supply of textbooks.

He said that if the monopoly is not dismantled, the Vibal Group stands to corner some P1.5 billion of the P2 billion earmarked by DepEd next year for textbooks. Of course he was talking only of an iffy proposition.

The demolition job fizzled out, however, because the accusers failed to provide evidence that would prove fraud in the textbook procurement. Besides, and more importantly, the World Bank itself defended the Vibal contract.

Joachim von Amsberg, country director, said that a number of WB specialists scrutinized the contract award and found it consistent with its procurement guidelines.

* * *

SEMP GOALS: The Social Expenditure Management Project (SEMP), launched in 2000, was a WB-approved project aimed at providing quality education and governance in the social sector departments. One goal is to provide textbooks for elementary and high school students.

After a successful SEMP in 2004, the World Bank followed through with SEMP-2. Its objective is to improve performance (efficiency, quality and equity) and governance (transparency and accountability) in the social sector departments — Education (DepEd), Health (DoH) and Social Welfare (DSWD).

It also aimed to pursue as well a school building program carried out by the Department of Public Works and Highways — with the oversight and support of the Department of Budget and Management.

The project aims to provide free textbooks to indigent Filipino students in the public elementary to high schools. Of the $100 million for the project, $40 million was for procuring textbooks in Science, English and Social Studies.

Several firms submitted tender offers: Vibal Group, composed of Vibal, SD, LG&M, JTW Inc. with Watana Phanit Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd., and Alkem Co., as foreign partners; Rex Bookstore; Kolonwel Trading; Andsons Trading; Anvil Publishing Inc.; Daewoo Int’l Corp.; Grand Graphics Inc.; Ibon Foundation; and Lex Media Digital Corp.

* * *

VIBAL QUALIFIED: Last Jan. 31, the joint procurement service of the budget department and the DepEd’s technical working group recommended the disqualification of the Vibal Group for conflict of interest as shown by interlocking directors or by partnerships with one another.

Based on this, DepEd Assistant Secretary Camilo Miguel M. Montesa issued another memo on Feb. 15, disqualifying the four bidders. Then on March 9, the IABAC recommended a failure of bidding as none of the bidders qualified.

In a letter dated April 24, 2006, Rekha Menon, senior economist of the WB East Asia and Pacific Region, wrote to DepEd Undersecretary Fe Hidalgo and DBM Assistant Secretary and IABAC chairman Eduardo Opida disagreeing with the disqualification of Vidal Group and Watana and Daewoo International.

Vibal was reinstated as a bidder, and eventually won the contract.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 30, 2006)

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