The ‘Brigada’ wars

Children continue to be caught in the crossfire of political maneuvering. This week has seen tense stand-offs in multiple public schools in the “Embo” (short for enlisted men’s barrios) barangays as the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of Taguig regarding their jurisdiction. As the landmark decision grants 10 barangays to Taguig, a significant number of Makati services and buildings suddenly find themselves in alien territory, such as Ospital ng Makati, University of Makati, and Makati Science High School (MSHS). MSHS was one of the schools who find themselves teeming with police and volunteers from both cities laying claim to their jurisdiction. Using the “Brigada Eskwela” program as pretense to do a show of force regarding the new jurisdiction had sown confusion and fear among students and parents.

Public education has become increasingly politicized (and militarized), first during the transition to face-to-face classes when soldiers and police were seen roaming inside classrooms with their guns. The increase in Department of Education’s (DepEd) apparent focus on curbing communism within schools had led to recurrent seminars to students against the evils of communism which some see as veering dangerously close to Red-tagging. Confidential funds are now being asked for the second time in a row by DepEd, which they claim is for security. The recent incident of a Philippine National Police surveillance drone accidentally falling in the parking lot of the administration building in the University of the Philippines Diliman is yet another evidence of police incursion of academic spaces. The Brigada wars between Makati and Taguig is the latest sign that politics is valued over the students’ welfare.

Brigada Eskwela is a controversial program to begin with. It calls for the Filipinos’ “bayanihan” spirit of teachers, parents, and volunteers to help prepare school for the new academic year. It is a double-edged service, in that DepEd has been reliant on this program instead of advocating for a government budget to rehabilitate and resupply classrooms. DepEd continues to assert that it does not have the budget to do all the necessary upgrades and improvements, including the increase in hiring of teachers and the building of more classrooms. This logic becomes harder to swallow when they have started to request—and to receive—a significant budget for confidential funds instead.

The program has also become a favorite photo-op moment for politicians. Just recently, both the president and vice president made a show of painting some chairs in a public school classroom. Taguig choosing the Brigada Eskwela as its first appearance to their new constituents is also essentially a photo-op set-up. Showing up unannounced at a school and insisting entry, even with the purpose of volunteering, is not bayanihan; it is simply disrespect and lack of care about the feelings of the new constituents. That their first act was to show up and disrupt the start of the academic year shows that they are not concerned about transitioning students and the community properly.

The moment I heard that the Embo barangays will now be in Taguig, I already knew that the transition will be painful given the sheer number of constituents as well as the number of services in the area. The transition is unavoidably a gargantuan task. However, the way Taguig seems to be starting off is causing more suffering than is necessary.

The first mistake is to adopt a top-down attitude toward the transition. Taguig, you are not inheriting inanimate objects; you are inheriting human beings with their own rights and agencies. That DepEd National Capital Region issued a memo granting immediate jurisdiction of 14 public schools from Makati to Taguig without proper consultation among its stakeholders—local government units, teachers, parents, and students—showcases what happens when this transition is done hurriedly by top management.

People generally fear change. It is Taguig and Makati’s job to allay these fears with proper transition phasing and valuing of constituents’ needs and concerns. Instead of barging in with unannounced visits, Taguig should have set up an awareness campaign of what the change in jurisdiction would mean for people’s daily lives. They should have given the new constituents time to absorb this radical change and allowed them to ask their questions and air their concerns. Taguig should make space for the grief of those who have been enjoying their citizenship with Makati instead of invalidating—or penalizing—their loyalty. Taguig should be in the business of exciting their new constituents with what Taguig can offer instead of simply taking over Makati’s education and social service investments.

This whole thing reminds me of Solomon’s dilemma with two mothers claiming a baby. It would have been better if the baby had a say in all of this.