This two-part series from Eric Opa Doue with New Narratives examines the county’s school system.
MONWEH, River Cess- Jacob Beegar sits on a rattan chair under a palaver hut while his friends run around. Jacob does not join them. The 15-year-old doesn’t want to play. He would rather be in school.
Jacob is expected to be in Grade 4 at nearby Giemengbleh Public School in Kporkon Monweh district. But the school has been closed since 2020.
Instead, Jacob accompanies his uncle John Beegar every morning to help with the farm work. Jacob is the youngest of four children. Uncle John took him in when his parents couldn’t afford to keep him in school. Jacob fears that his own future will be better than that of his parents.
“My father and my mother are poor, that’s why I want to go to school to help them,” explains Jacob. “But the way I won’t go back to school means I’ll be poor like them.”
The school closed in 2020 when the last teacher finally left. Even before the school closed, she was doing a poor job of teaching the children of this village.
“The school had only one teacher teaching over one hundred and forty more children,” according to Jacob’s uncle John. “But the man wasn’t getting a salary from the government, so he closed the school and left.”
The school building – made of sticks with mud walls – began to crumble. It now stands, a roofless ruin, on the outskirts of the village – a symbol of the crumbling dreams of children and parents here.
The nearest school is in Boegeezay, an hour away by motorbike. Jacob’s uncle doesn’t have the LD$1,000 it costs every day to send his nephew there. Neither do the other families here. Jetta Wee, 10, and Blessing Duo, 11, are among other children sitting under the palaver hut instead of going to school. Other children have moved in with relatives in Boegeezay or the town of Buchanan.
Many schools in River Cess are closing due to teacher shortages. Parents and teachers accuse the Ministry of Education of mismanagement. Prospective teachers struggle to get paid. When teachers leave, they continue to receive salaries. And the ministry does not replace teachers when they leave.
Records from the county education officer’s office show that there are 115 public schools in five school districts in River Cess County. 400 government teachers are assigned to the county. But teachers and parents say the actual number of teachers in classrooms is likely much lower.
FrontPage Africa and New Narratives first surveyed schools in River Cess a decade ago, finding up to 45 students crammed into classrooms with no roof or chairs. Funding was then a major issue, with only $40 million allocated to the country’s entire education system, including universities. Ten years later, the education budget has more than doubled to $87 million, but many students are still missing out.
Experts say the problem is playing out in rural areas of the country with dire consequences for Liberia’s future. Children’s education is key to Liberia’s development, but a 2018 Unicef report found that 16% of primary school-aged children were out of school, one of the highest rates in the world. “Inclusive education for all” is number 4 of the 16 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Teacher shortages plague River Cess. An article by this reporter on ELBC Super Morning Show in December revealed that 50 teachers had left classrooms at River Cess and were still being paid. Shortly after this story broke, River Cess County Education Officer Peter Knowlden wrote to the Department of Education’s director of human resources to suspend the salaries of 50 teachers who he said had dropped out of class but were still receiving salaries. .
Knowlden, in an interview, said he called a meeting in Cestos in October 2021 at which some of these teachers were present. According to him, he told them to “go home to return to the classrooms or be removed from the payroll”.
“Some of these guys hadn’t been in class for over 10 years,” Knowlden said. “If they don’t come back, we won’t remove them but the law will remove them.”
But in fact, documents obtained by FPA/New Narratives show that the majority of teachers left their jobs with the approval of school district heads.
Teachers say they were allowed to leave
Eight of the teachers accused of abandoning their duties were interviewed by FPA/New Narratives but almost all said they had been given permission to leave.
In an interview, then-district education officer Peter Wilson confirmed he granted the leave, but alleged the teachers reneged on their agreements.
“They went to study to come back but they overstayed and it wasn’t the deal,” Wilson says. “These schools are empty and they are in Buchanan doing nothing. That’s why we made the decision to inform the ministry.
But that is not the case according to the letters seen by FPA/New Narratives. Teacher John Toby, for example, was granted leave in December 2020 and resigned a year later. Wilson received the resignation 21 days before the CEO filed the complaint with the Department of Education. Toby now works in the office of Wellington Geevon Smith, a senator from River Cess.
Several schools are closed here due to lack of teachers while others are run by a single teacher. One such school is the Gbouzohn public school in Kploh which was closed from 2019 to 2021. Jérôme Toe, the only teacher assigned here was removed from the payroll in 2018. After failing to find his name on the government payroll, he closed the school. and left town.
Parents persuaded him to reopen the school in November 2021. Although many students have dropped out or moved to gold mines to work, Toe says current enrollment is around 150.
“My name has been removed from the Government of Liberia payroll since 2018 when the IAA [Internal Audit Agency] came and I was not present at the time of the audit due to my illness,” says Toe. “When I was away the community was usually crying because for two years the kids weren’t learning, things were really depressed. So I decided to come and the reception still leaves something to be desired. Even though I charge LD$500 for students to enroll, it still takes time, so I am alone in the classroom.”
When there are teachers, they are often absent. Vondeh Public School has 163 students, but when FPA/New Narratives visited in June, the school was closed because its two teachers had left for a training workshop in Cestos.
“The teachers told us they were going to get their salaries on the road back,” said Garpue, Edwin Garpue, president of the Parents Teachers Association (PTA). “But I’m surprised to hear that they’re training in Cestos. So like that, there will be no school here for the next two weeks or so.
Other schools closed in River Cess due to teacher shortages, coupled with other challenges, are in Gorzohn, Dorbor, Sawpue and Gbardiah.
Following media reports and public outcry, Education Minister Ansu Sonii announced an investigation into the county. The outcome of the investigation saw all of the CEO’s office DEOs and HR manager – Peter Wilson, Isaac Innis, David Jarwoe and Cheyee Kpanwon – suspended for a month without pay.
Their suspension letters dated May 2, 2022 were under the signature of James Armah Massaquoi, Acting Deputy Minister of Administration at the Ministry of Education.
According to the Knowlden County education official, the suspensions were triggered by the discovery of 50 teachers who allegedly dropped out of classrooms but were still receiving salaries. 27 teachers were retired in June 2021 by the Ministry and not replaced.
Upon learning that the DEOs have been suspended, many residents and civil society actors in River Cess hailed the minister. But Simon Outland, head of the River Cess branch of the Liberia Civil Society Council, is one of many critics who say that to really improve the River Cess school system, the ministry should go further.
“A month is not enough,” says Outland. “It should be a year or six months without pay.”
George Trokon, a retired teacher and former president of River Cess CSOs, says that because the government has failed to punish corrupt education officials, they continue to mess up the county’s school system.
“A month of suspension is not enough. Schools don’t have teachers as we speak,” Trokon says. “The ministry should always be ready to replace people and they don’t. You just see yourself, then, the holders of the C certificate teach all the subjects.
The CEO insists the investigation will continue.
“These findings, media reports and any other concerns raised by our employees are being reviewed,” Knowlden says. “No matter where you are, if you are found responsible for anything, you will be punished. But we have to work according to the policy.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its “Investigating Liberia” series. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the content of the story.