Feb. 12, 2004 – The Senate Education and Youth Committee disseminated information on unexpended government obligations at a Wednesday hearing that Sen. Ronald Russell, the committee chair, said he had obtained on a recent trip to Washington, D.C.
The hearing was billed as an update on accreditation and the status of federal grants received by the Education Department in the last five years.
In addition, the committee voted to hold a bill establishing a Teen Court for further study and passed another to establish a Youth Challenge Program and authorize its awarding of adult high school diplomas to participants.
The eight-page report on the Education Department's unexpended obligations covered federal grants received in fiscal years 2000-2002, 2003 and 2004. Most of the committee members and education officials, including Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, present at the hearing had not previously seen the report.
For fiscal years 2000-2002, some of the listings of unexpended funds were:
Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities State Grants, Outlying areas: balance available $3,442,989, constituting 81.84 percent of the funds awarded.
Special Education Grants to States, Advanced Funding: balance available $1,876,560, constituting 87.47 percent of the funds awarded.
Education for Homeless Children and Youth: balance available $44,519, constituting 100 percent of funds available.
Improving Teacher Quality State Grants, Outlying Areas: balance available $4,228,678, constituting 100 percent of funds available.
Michael said when the department receives the funding it is not broken down in these categories. Asked whether Education has a program for the education of homeless children, she replied: "Not as a program in itself."
Asked then if there are plans to create such a program, she replied: "There are no plans at the moment."
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste asked about the grant for improving teacher quality. Michael said the funds are being expended on teacher quality efforts and that the breakout in the report is how Congress reports the funds. "We get it in lump sum," she said.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone asked why the report said the territory has not expended any funds for vocational education, adding, "How can we bring that on line?" Michael replied: "We have provided the vocational education program with a sum of money that is more than what is provided for in this report." In fact, she said, "We have increased the money" to vocational education.
Michael said Education has made great strides in the last few years, citing online accessibility to information and new-teacher certifications. She said one of the biggest obstacles for the department is the procurement process.
Sen. Louis Hill commented that procurement problems are "systemic throughout the government."
Teen Court, Youth Challenge bills
Territorial Court Presiding Judge Maria M. Cabret laid out her concerns about the Teen Court bill in a letter to the committee. "Requiring judges to serve on a forum that is administered and managed by the commissioner and the Department of Human Services inappropriately melds the executive and judicial branches of government and, therefore, offends the Separation of Powers Doctrine," she wrote.
Amos Cary Jr., president of the V.I. Bar Association, endorsed the concept of a Teen Court but pointed out that the bill includes no provisions for funding or staffing. He suggested such provisions be added and that the bill also "include language to protect the confidentiality of the Teen Court participants and address the immunity of the government of the V.I. in Teen Court proceedings."
Faced with these and other requests for consideration and clarification, the committee voted to hold the bill, whose primary sponsor is Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, for further review.
Cabret gave her support to the Youth Challenge Program, saying research has shown that it "is a success nationwide." She urged the lawmakers to incorporate the residential requirements of the national program, saying it would "provide our troubled youth with much-needed discipline and training."
Housing, Parks and Recreation Commissioner Ira Hobson talked about the "at risk" component of the bill. He said the proposed program should be geared to children "who are in trouble with the law or recommended by the youth judge." The program should not be voluntary, he said, and children who are not at risk should be directed to JROTC.
The committee passed the bill, sponsored by Sen. Roosevelt David, on a 5-0 vote and sent it to the Rules Committee. Sens. Baptiste, David, Hill, Malone and Russell voted in favor; Sen. Usie Richards did not vote on the measure.
The meeting, which began at 6 p.m., was only halfway through its agenda at 11 p.m. Russell asked that Board of Education representatives return on Feb. 18, the next scheduled meeting of the committee, to present their testimony.
Students cite problems, concerns
Several students from the Future Business Leaders of America who had spent Wednesday at the Legislature Building as a Career Day activity were invited to testify at the start of the hearing on conditions in their schools.
They cited inadequate libraries with little or no computer Internet access and a lack of afterschool programs on school campuses. They said it is difficult for students without transportation to take part in such programs at locations other than their schools.
With an increase in mandatory courses, they said, vocational students are having a difficult time completing requirements for graduation. "It would take a vocational student more than four years to obtain a certificate of completion," one said.
A common concern was textbooks and the lack thereof. Students complained they do not have any textbooks in math, while for a history course they are required to have three.
One student said: "The violence in the schools is ridiculous." Several said school monitors need to be dispersed throughout the school instead of being congregated in one area.
Other complaints included inoperable drinking fountains and restroom facilities.
The FBLA students testifying were Mari-Anne Riley, Tamika Santos and Rashanda Yarwood from Education Complex and Tashima Lambert from Central High School.
Committee members present at the meeting were Sens. Baptiste, David, Hill, Malone, Richards and Russell, the chair.
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