The V.I. Board of Education has just hosted two town meetings on Feb. 21 on St. Thomas at the Curriculum Center, and on Feb. 28 on St. Croix in the Legislative Conference Room in Frederiksted. It will convene a third at 6:30 p.m. March 14 on St. John in the Legislative Conference Room in Cruz Bay.
Town meetings allow people to voice concerns, offer constructive criticism and have input into the decision-making process. Board members have been open to the collective wisdom of the electorate, and we have received an outpouring of constructive criticism of the existing public education system.
However, we have noticed that many participants in the discussions and debates on public education are not aware of the existing powers of the Board of Education. At our last town meeting, a handful of those testifying implied that the board would "bite off more than it can chew" if we were to acquire governance of the public education system, and that the board must exercise its powers under the V.I. Code to convince the public of its seriousness. We board members listened attentively to this point of view. We wondered to ourselves, what powers do we have in reality?
The Board of Education as it now exists is an advisory entity. It does not have governance over the school system, nor can it set public policy, as the vast majority of U.S. state school boards do.
One aspect of governance is the authority to create a resource base through taxation. Approximately 75 percent of the nation's 15,437 school boards have the authority to formulate taxes on items such as property and gasoline. The V.I. board does not have the power to raise taxes, formulate fiscal strategies for public education, or have input on major public policy issues such as pay raises for teachers.
A brief review of the board's existing powers makes clear its advisory nature. Its general powers and duties are set forth in Section 121, Title 17 of the Virgin Islands Code. The board has authority and jurisdiction to:
1. Recommend the establishment of public schools; prescribe general regulations and orders; adopt curricula and courses of study; recommend laws and amendments; recommend appropriations required for the operation of the public schools and the Education Department; and in general to do anything necessary for the proper establishment, maintenance, management, and operation of the public schools of the Virgin Islands;
2. Cooperate with the U.S. Department of Education in the administration of all acts of Congress relating to general education, and administer all provisions of the V.I. Code relating thereto, as well as any other legislation pursuant thereto enacted by the legislature;
3. Approve plans for cooperating with the federal government in carrying out any and all phases of the educational program in which it may find cooperation to be desirable;
4. Provide for the proper administration of funds which may be appropriated by Congress and apportioned to the Virgin Islands for any and all education purposes;
5. Approve, subject to final approval by the governor, recommendations made by the Education commissioner to the Personnel Merit System administrator under Section 121 of Title 17 with respect to the qualifications of teachers, librarians, supervisors and other professional personnel of the Education Department;
6. Approve, subject to final approval of the governor, the rules and regulations proposed by the Education commissioner under Section 121 of Title 17 for the certification, selection, determination of salaries, and appointment of teachers, librarians, supervisors, and other professional personnel of the department;
7. Do all things necessary to entitle the Virgin Islands to receive the benefits of all funds appropriated to the territory by acts of Congress;
8. Initiate court proceedings for the enforcement of rights and the collection of accounts, and, to this end, contract for such personnel services as the board may deem necessary;
9. Promulgate rules and regulations for the certification of all elementary, secondary and post-secondary educational institutions; and
10. Prepare its budget for submission to the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The board in addition shall perform such other functions as may be prescribed or required by local or federal law.
Thus, the board recommends policies, and the governor has an active role in the public education system.
An empowered board would be the key entity in developing public policy, and it would have sole responsibility for seeking the best practices and conditions for the public education of our youth. Under the existing system, the Education commissioner must compete with other Cabinet members for scarce resources and must deal with the "politics" of the administration. An empowered board would have only one boss you, the people of the Virgin Islands.
With an empowered board, members would be elected every four years to administer the territory's public education system. As is the case in the majority of U.S. mainland school jurisdictions, an empowered board would be the best institution to reform our broken system. Why settle for second best?
Editor's note: Malik Sekou was elected to the V.I. Board of Education last November. He is an assistant professor of political science and history at the University of the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas campus. Readers are invited to send comments on this article to email@example.com.