As a member of the Board of Education, I have been closely following the discussions on accreditation in our local media. The entire board has been seeking practical solutions for our Education Department. We have offered a memorandum of agreement to the governor, and we are working with Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds on improving our institutional capacity to utilize federal funds. Our executive director, Evadney Hodge, has begun to provide critical input for federal-territorial partnerships in funding ongoing programs.
The board anticipates intense meetings, discussions and dialogues on how to regain our high schools' accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. We are not pointing fingers and calling names, but we frankly state that our public education system needs to be restructured. How? With governance for the Board of Education.
I reiterate that need for governance as presented on these pages last March in the Op-ed article "Should school board have only advisory power?" Governance is an "old" issue. Previous boards have advocated major reforms in the direction of governance. However, unlike the previous demands for structural changes, today we have no other alternative.
For the benefit of the readers who may not be familiar with governance, I will present a brief overview. A good working definition for "governance" locally is the power to administer public education in the territory. This means a shift in the present institutional structure and leadership.
At present, the system relies heavily on the individual qualities and leadership styles of a very small group of decision-makers who are organized in a hierarchical fashion, a political pyramid. The governor appoints the commissioner and selects his/her assistants. They oversee the 30-odd public schools and coordinate the system.
If the governor and commissioner agree with each other's political ideas and are harmonious in the public policy process, they may be able to implement good policies. However, we have seen within the last 10 years less than desirable relationships between governors and their Education commissioners. One example is the acrimonious relationship between former governor Roy Schneider and his commissioner, James Cheek. On two occasions, Cheek was so fed up with Schneider that he was literally on the plane heading back to the mainland in disgust with the governor before he was persuaded to stay. Do you remember?
The territory's political patronage and spoils system has infected our public education system. The system allows the governor and commissioner to place whomever they want in high levels of authority. It also allows the commissioner to be outmaneuvered by direct appeals to the governor. Recall that the Education commissioner rescinded all leaves during the teachers union strike in October 2000. Despite this order, one high-ranking official was able to go on a cruise during the strike — through a direct appeal to the governor, thus circumventing the commissioner.
A Board of Education with governance would have the authority to develop plans for curriculum improvement and to enforce regulations. It would have the authority to hire top education officials — and to fire them when they do not perform or to not implement policies democratically and collectively set. It would develop budgets to enable our children to have the best education possible in the American system. It would be accountable and responsive to the electorate, since its members are elected to office. As nine public servants who are a cross section of the population, it would be almost immune from petty politics. The empowered Board of Education would be able to transform our existing system to a higher stage of instruction.
I have heard a few leaders criticize the concept of governance. Their reasons indicate a knee-jerk reaction to progressive change. No one in this territory can say public education has been improving. In fact, everyone says the reverse — our system is in disrepair and is failing. Some present leaders make the error of saying that public education is in a state of emergency but there is no need for structural change.
The present Board of Education is acutely aware that the present governor and commissioner are pro-education leaders, but we cannot predict who will succeed this administration in 2003. And we do not know which priorities will dominate the next governor and the next commissioner. With an empowered Board of Education, who is governor or commissioner would not matter since we, the board, would be responsible for public education.
When it comes to public policy, especially public education, we must never gamble with individual leaders and their commitment to our children. We cannot depend on the goodwill of a governor or his/her commissioner. We must rely on the collective skills, will and dedication of a board. Even though the board expects a productive relationship with the present governor and commissioner, we must ask: What happens to public education if new leaders come to power and they are not committed to our 25,000 school children?
Quite a few unacceptable things have transpired since my March article was published. One was that the school breakfast program was in crisis last month. Another was that, like the rest of the Virgin Islands public, we were shocked to discover that Middle States had notified the three accredited high schools of their impending loss of accreditation.
The Board of Education wants an immediate solution to the accreditation woes, but we also see the need for major structural reforms in our public school system. We are not calling for anyone's head or any political sackings — although that kind of response would not be not far-fetched in many U.S. jurisdictions. We seek institutional changes to modernize our outmoded educational structures. We must not allow the error of one individual to jeopardize the future of thousands of Virgin Islands children. Our children simply cannot be allowed to slip between the cracks. They would not forgive us, nor would their parents.
Editor's note: Malik Sekou, a University of the Virgin Islands political science faculty member, was elected a year ago to a seat on the Board of Education.
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