March 2, 2004 — The Committee on Education and Youth, chaired by Sen. Ronald E. Russell, met Monday evening in St. Thomas to receive updates from officials from the Department of Education and the Board of Education. Also present were Commissioner of Finance Bernice Turnbull, Office of Management and Budget Director Ira Mills, and Paul Flemming, executive director of the Virgin Islands Lottery.
In his opening statement, Russell admitted that education in the territory is far below acceptable standards. "Are we meeting the needs of the students? Are we providing adequate education for our youth?" asked Russell. He then pointed to statistics in the 2003 Kids Count survey compiled by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands. Russell was especially troubled by the territory's 15.7 percent teenage dropout rate.
Board of Education updates
Education Board Chairman Harry Daniel was joined by Executive Director Tregenza Roach and Business and Finance Director Laurie Isaac to give testimony on the Board's progress. They reported to the committee that nearly $520,000 was collected in fiscal year 2003. Officials also noted that despite a three-month amnesty program, which ran last year from July to September, there are still 1,185 persons delinquent on student loans, totaling roughly $1.5 million. As a result of the amnesty program, roughly $60,000 was collected from 63 persons. The Board said it would begin releasing the names of the loans' co-signers in the hope of increasing collections on the defaulted loans.
The Board also reported that it has prepared a preliminary draft of the rules and regulations necessary for implementation of the V.I. Community Service and Civic Education Act. The community service graduation requirements were recently amended from 500 hours to 100 hours. The Board was also mandated to develop a register of eligible agencies to participate in the program. Additionally, the Board requested that Russell make further amendments to the bill that would make the 100-hour requirement clear and consistent throughout the legislation.
Regarding public high school graduation requirements, Daniel said the current requirements are 26 credit units. Russell pointed out that this structure has caused hardship for students pursuing vocational skills. He urged Daniel to work with the St. Croix Technical School and revise the requirements so all students can graduate high school with a vocational skill.
Department of Education updates
Department of Education Commissioner Noreen Michael provided a status report on capital projects, accreditation, casino revenue funds, the purchase of new textbooks, and money received from the V.I. Lottery.
"We have a vibrant vocational education program," said Michael, adding, "We have students that are competing and winning on a national level. Our students are accepted at the Coast Guard Academy, West Point and the Naval Academy."
The commissioner then noted the territory's tendency to downplay its successes and focus on the negative. Sen. David then reminded the commissioner that "in reading and writing we are at the bottom of the totem pole."
Michaels said that parents and the community decry standardized tests, which are a national indicator of our progress. "They [parents] say the test is biased and unfair . We have to change our culture when it comes to testing. We need to be more consistent and test more regularly," said Michael.
Regarding capital projects, Michael reported that several projects have received funding, including $2 million for a track-and-field complex at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School; $12 million to construct a cafeteria and gymnasium at Cancryn Junior High and a gymnasium at Charlotte Amalie High; $100,00 for air conditioning at the Michael J. Kerwin Elementary School cafeteria; and $200,000 for athletic track resurfacing and security equipment for St. Croix Central High.
In several capital projects, Michael's report shows money has been released but movement on the project is slow.
"Why is there no progress on the Kean track and field?" asked Senator Hill. "Do you have plans or drawings? Who is heading up the project?"
Christopher Frederick, program manager for the Department of Education, stated that an engineer came on staff at the department in October 2003 and that the drawings are a priority. Frederick explained the delay by noting considerations such as drainage and how many students would be using the facility.
Russell then pointed out that there are specifications already drafted in manuals to design tracks to international specifications.
In a written statement presented to the committee, Paul Flemming spoke about the V.I. Education Initiative Fund, which requires the lottery to deposit 25 percent of all proceeds to the fund. Flemming noted that from August 2003 to February 2004, the agency has collected more than $222,000. Of this amount, roughly $55,000 was remitted to the fund.
Confusion then reigned when it was evident that the various departments represented were not in sync regarding balances owed to the schools. Sen. Richards called for clarification. "This points out the failures in the system," he said.
Senators present at Monday's meeting were Chairman Ronald Russell, Luther Renee, Roosevelt David, Carlton Dowe, Louis Hill, and Usie R. Richards.
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