When Lanao Sur Mayors Raysalam Mangondato of Balindong and Nashiba Sumagayan of Taraka took the Synergeia team to visit public elementary schools in their respective municipalities, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew on paper about the initiatives they have been undertaking. I did not know the extent of the problems they have to address as local chief executives. And yet I found these two women to be the embodiment of grace under pressure not only as mayors but as women within a predominantly Muslim community doing their best to shepherd their poverty-stricken constituents toward a better future. It is a testament to their clear vision and firm resolve that Taraka and Balindong are slowly but surely making its way up, even as they attest that their partnership with Synergeia Foundation, USAID and other donors helped a lot in their governance.
Both mayors are grateful for the leadership workshops under USAID’s Education Government Effectiveness (EdGE) through Synergeia. They are also thankful for the many linkages Synergeia established that enabled other partners to extend their valuable help to their respective municipalities.
Women Leaders in a Muslim Community
Hon. Mayor Raysalam Mangondato of Balindong (left) and Hon. Mayor Nashiba Sumagayan of Taraka (right) during their respective local school board meetings.
“There’s always a perception, especially in a muslim community, that women cannot govern,” Mayor Raysa said when asked about the difficulties of being a female mayor in a predominantly Muslim province. “I had to prove that women can be catalysts for change. I always offer due respect to the male leaders. I don’t automatically give my suggestions but gather them all into a collective pool. In that manner, I don’t make them feel I’m acting superior so there’s no clash of interest and no ego involved. I respect tradition so they’ve come to respect me. They know that I’m the local chief executive and we know where we stand.” Once that barrier was crossed, it was then time to engage the rest of the community to cooperate in tackling the many issues that plague their municipalities.
Good Governance Means Good Planning
So how do these two local chief executives address the many challenges? “Little by little,” according to Mayor Raysa, though with extreme difficulty and a bit of help from the community. She points out that it takes more than good intentions to govern effectively. She said good governance is not complete if one does not have funds to implement projects. Therefore, a leader has to plan wisely in order to carry out plans effectively. This includes appropriating the limited budget strategically and forming various partnerships with public and private organizations to address the shortage.
Balindong also funnels tax refunds from the office of the regional treasury (ORT) back to the education sector. The ORT generates and manages regional revenues for ARMM through measures that include tax collection. As a form of incentive to increase collection, the ORT gives tax refunds to the local government. Mayor Raysa makes sure the refund goes straight to the schools. “The teachers know that they get back part of their taxes so they pay willingly,” Mayor Raysa said. It is for this reason that Balindong boasts of the highest ORT revenue.
Just like Mayor Raysa, Mayor Nash encourages equity from her constituents to make sure that the local governments efforts are sustainable.“Counterpart is important for sustainability,” Mayor Nash said. “If I give them a whiteboard they requested, they have to make sure they will provide the markers,” she explained to illustrate. Equity teaches the people to cherish what is given because they themselves have invested in them and that makes for a sustainable system. This goes for the assistance acquired from their partners. “Synergeia and USAID gave us a boost. We have to take care of our relationship with them and we want to show that we value the help they give us,” Mayor Nash said.
Transparency Builds Trust
Being a leader is establishing trust and discipline between yourself and your constituents according to Mayor Raysa. “You have to establish discipline and trust by setting an example. if they don’t trust you, they will not open up. Once they see that you’re working, they will help you. I’ve already established their trust, from the farmers to the teachers to the mothers.”
The two mayors exercise discipline to improve the level of transparency in their governance. “The principals know that in order for me to help them, they better have the supporting receipts,” Mayor Nash said.
“I don’t have to have my name or my photo attached with my projects,” Mayor Raysa said. “What I require are the complete documents for the auditors.”
Challenges to Development
Being a principally agricultural land with population of less than 25,000 each, Balindong and Taraka make do with a meager share of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) from the national government for its development. Mayor Raysa and Mayor Nash have to explore other means to append their limited funds but it has not been easy and many challenges remain yet unresolved.
The two local chief executives had no qualms showing us around the poorly developed parts of their respective municipalities. They took us to schools where people had no electricity or mode of public transport. We witnessed teachers holding classes in dark classrooms where children struggle to read and write while risking their eyesight.
Dark classrooms risk the eye health of both teacher and pupils
We also found out why both mayors had been working to provide chairs to the public schools these past few years. Children either had to make do with dilapidated desks dating all the way back from the Marcos era or had to bring their own chairs to school. There was even a classroom where children sat in 2’s or 3’s on wooden tables.
Right: Children still use dilapidated desks dating 20 years; Left: Other children either have to bring their own chairs to school or sit on tables.
Bottom Left: New chairs ready for distribution to Taraka schools under the initiative of Mayor Sumagayan; Bottom Right: Balindong Children smile happily after receiving much needed school supplies from Mayor Mangondato
DepED ARMM Help is Urgently Needed
Lack of classrooms and lack of teachers are also major issues. Mayor Raysa showed us a number of unfinished buildings that were reportedly started by DepEd-ARMM but only got as far as hollow-blocked walls. The teachers and some community stakeholders have started spending their personal resources to make some of the classrooms in these buildings somewhat usable. However, majority of them have stayed bare and idle for more than five years already.
Two of a number of unfinished classrooms from a hanging DepEd-ARMM project
Local teachers who have passed their Licensure Examination for Teachers (LET) have been awaiting formal assignments for a long undetermined time. The reason for the delay is unknown. The mayors and school heads are concerned that children who will complete 4th grade in a year will be forced to either seek to continue in schools located farther from their homes or quit altogether for lack of teachers. Mayor Nash said teachers who live far away have a tendency to be absent often so they are hoping that DepED ARMM will finally issue items to natives of their own villages, especially, since they already passed their LET.
Education VS Income
Half of the students in the class were absent in some of the schools we visited. Their teachers said the parents needed their children to help harvest crops that day. It is a common occurrence in these two predominantly agricultural municipalities, according to Mayor Nash. While parents do not want to begrudge their children the right to education, they are left with no choice because they cannot afford to hire help. Their children will end up starving if the family does not earn enough through farming. Such is the dilemma that face Balindong and Taraka households that the local governments have been trying to address. Mayor Nash and Mayor Raysa are both implementing programs to improve the people’s livelihood that include skills training for farmers.
Education is Key
It is no surprise that education has a special place in the two lady mayors’ hearts. Mayor Nash was an English professor at Mindanao State University. She had a long 12-year career in the education sector before entering political service. She frequently states her background as the reason why her compassion for children and her empathy for Taraka teachers remain strong. “I was a teacher so I know how they feel,” she said.”
Mayor Raysa, on the other hand, is the daughter of a woman who had been a district superintendent for 30 years. At the beginning of Mayor Raysa’s public office career, her mother would constantly give her reference materials and reminded her to study. Mayor Raysa has a deep passion for learning which she puts to good use as chief executive. During the recent Galing Pook Governance Fair held in Manila in September, I witnessed the mayor lingering around the different booths and picking up brochures. She took keen interest in innovative projects that other local governments are undertaking. During our meeting in Balindong, she off-handedly mentioned that she kept the sanitary landfill brochures she took from Quezon City’s booth. She said she has been studying how to apply the methods in Balindong because she wanted to make sure that she complied with standards.
She and Mayor Nash often consult each other in matters of policy and project implementation. This trait of acknowledging they do not possess perfect knowledge enable Mayor Raysa and Mayor Nash to approach every aspect of public service with a fresh perspective. As such, they are able to adopt proven best practices to their municipalities’ benefit.
It was a privilege to witness these two power women in action as they change the leadership paradigm of Lanao Sur. Synergeia thanks the local government units under their leadership for seeing to our team’s security during our visit and taking us to meet the beautiful people of Taraka and Balindong. The Synergeia team that visited Lanao Sur are Project Officer Dindo Guevara with Alamuden Aguam, Marivic Calubia, Joyce Gracia, Ruth Santos and Lilith Villanueva.