July 16, 2004 – The territory's education system was the focus of the day as the Department of Education, Board of Education and Board of Vocational Education presented their fiscal year 2005 budget requests to the Senate Finance Committee Friday.
With issues of accreditation, teacher hiring and legislated pay increases, Education Commissioner Noreen Michael presented her budget request of $152,401,872. She said the amount was what the governor submitted to the Legislature in his proposed budget.
The Education Department historically has received the largest appropriation of any department or agency. From the $152.4 million, $102.6 million will go for salaries and benefits, including $750,000 for a teacher substitute pool. She said a little over $1 million would go towards accreditation of the territory's public high schools.
The department received $36.5 million in federal funds this fiscal year an increase of $1.3 million over FY 2003, Michael said.
The funds have been awarded under special conditions set forth in the compliance agreement between the U.S. Department of Education and the V.I. government. The agreement, signed in September 2002, is for three years.
Michael said 16 percent of the 2002 federal grant money has yet to be spent and the department has until Sept. 30 to use it. Education has taken a lot of flak recently for its failure to utilize all of the federal funding it received by the deadline for using or losing it.
Sen. Ronald Russell asked Michael whether she views the compliance agreement as a form of federal takeover. Michael said no.
"It is a way of ensuring that jurisdictions come in compliance with funding they receive," Michael said, adding that the agreement does not seek to change policy but rather is to ensure proper management of funds.
Board of Education
The Board of Education presented a budget request of $1.3 million for FY 2005 and also requested an appropriation of $800,000 to support its loan and scholarship program.
This year, the board reviewed some 840 local loan and scholarship applications and made awards totaling $1.1 million.
"I am pleased to report also that this year the board completed this process much earlier than in prior years and is in process right now of sending out these awards so that funding is available to our students as they prepare to begin the school year in August," Harry Daniel, board chair, said.
Daniel said the board has collected $400,465 in loan repayments since last October a record high for such a period. The money collected all revolves back into the loan and scholarship fund to secure awards for future students.
But with the positive news came some negative comments. School board member Jorge Galiber told the Finance Committee that the board needs to be audited.
Galiber charged that present and past board members owe the government "thousands of dollars" in student loans, credit card debts and travel debts. "It is hypocritical for board members to insist that people pay their student loans and they themselves have not," he said. "This needs to be investigated."
The board elected Galiber as its chair in January 2001; in March 2003, on a 5-3 vote with Galiber absent, he was ousted from the position, to be replaced by Daniel. Galiber subsequently sued the board alleging illegal and unethical treatment. Terrence D. Joseph, vice chair, said the board has no comment on Galiber's claims because of the pending litigation.
Board of Vocational Education
Eddie Williams, Board of Vocational Education chair, requested $565,000 for FY 2005.
He told the committee that vocational and technical education is "slowly dying" in the territory.
"No child should be left behind by graduating from high school without some type of marketable skill through vocational and technical education," Williams said. "We need to realize that every child is not going to college, but every child needs to make a living."
Commenting on published reports that vocational funds are being held up, Williams said he is not aware of any problems that could delay the release of the funds.
Committee members in attendance at the afternoon hearing were Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, the chair; and Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald Russell.
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