Feb. 22, 2005 Schools in the territory are in poor condition and parents are frustrated and concerned about their children's learning environments, a few of them told members of the Senate Education, Culture and Youth Committee Tuesday evening on St. Thomas. But it was senators and others working in the education field that did most of the talking.
And despite concerns, testimony revealed that repairs are taking place at a slow, if not stagnant, pace.
In the first of three hearings to be held on all three islands, the committee took testimony from Education Department officials in order to assess the condition of the school facilities on St. Thomas. The report was poor, but that was expected. Sen. Liston Davis, committee chairman had conducted his own videotaped tour of several of the island's public schools prior to the hearing and witnessed first hand the deplorable conditions that some of the territory's youngsters face every day.
At the beginning of the hearing, Davis showed a 15-minute video depicting structural problems at various schools, including Leonard Dober Elementary, Kirwan Terrace Elementary, Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and the Charlotte Amalie High School.
The video showed images of leaking roofs, mold, cracked walls, dilapidated bathrooms and other potential hazards. Even newly constructed schools like the Bertha C. Boschulte Junior High School and the Peace Corp Elementary School are suffering from leaky roofs and malfunctioning air conditioning units.
"I must say, so far what I've seen at the territory's schools has saddened me," Davis said.
Davis has also visited the Education Complex, Claude O. Markoe and Arthur Richards schools on St. Croix. He is slated to visit the Julius Sprauve and Guy Benjamin schools on St. John Thursday.
Noreen Michael, Education commissioner, said repairing the schools is a priority for the department and its maintenance staff. Michael said $500,000 was made available for repairs in the district last June, and she and her staff determined to focus on safety and health issues, accreditation, major repairs and basic maintenance needs.
Michael said it was further determined that the projects would be organized and approached in priority phases with completion dates in September 2004, January 2005 and May 2005.
"An attempt to complete all projects prior to the opening of our school doors would have actually resulted in our sacrificing quality of work," Michael said. "Thus, the district has been utilizing all available funds and its limited staff to provide quality work throughout the school year."
Michael said this would enable the department to focus on "more substantive maintenance issues" that could be better accomplished during the summer when students and staff were not on campus.
Michael listed aging facilities, inadequate staff and funding as the main problems hindering the department in repairing the schools.
In the St. Thomas-St. John District, 15 of the 18 major physical plants that house schools were constructed prior to 1984. Additionally, one half of the schools are over 50 years old and at least four were constructed approximately 100 years ago, Michael told the committee.
The department also has a total maintenance staff of 53 currently, who service all schools as well as all other facilities owned and utilized by the Education Department. Michael said she plans to hire an additional 20 employees for the St. Thomas-St. John District.
"Recognizing the critical role that the department plays in shaping the future of this territory, by molding and shaping the minds of our students, we appeal to all in the community to work with us in our efforts to maintain our schools by not engaging in destructive activities relative to our facilities, reporting vandals to the Police Department, and generally, doing all within our power to keep our schools and other facilities clean," Michael said.
The department has prioritized the repair work in three phases. The Priority I phase has been completed for the most part since mid-August and included: extermination for termites and rodents, general classroom and campus cleaning and beautification, recharging of fire extinguishers, and cleaning of the kitchen hoods and grease traps.
The sewage line at the Lockhart Elementary School was also repaired, along with structural repairs at CAHS and the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School that were required by the Middle States Association Commission on Secondary Schools.
Although both high schools received favorable recommendations from Middle States, Kean's recommendation stipulated several construction projects that must be completed by December. Michael did not specify what those projects were.
Other projects remain uncompleted under phase one, including repairs of the school lunch program warehouse, repairing of air conditioning units at Bertha Boschulte and Lockhart Elementary, and the construction of an athletic track at Kean.
Michael said projects were delayed as a result of "numerous unanticipated demands brought on, in part, by heavy rainfall and strong winds." Plus, classrooms at Addelita Cancryn were destroyed in a November fire.
Michael said most of the projects under Phases II and III would be funded by the Public Finance Authority.
Phase II projects are:
– repairs to the Conrad Building at the J. Antonio Jarvis School that houses classrooms.
– construction of a new gymnasium at CAHS.
– replacement of roofing at Julius Sprauve Elementary School.
– repair of leaks at the Pupil Transportation Building.
– construction of sidewalks at the E. Benjamin Oliver School.
– electrical upgrade to the Curriculum Center and CAHS.
– upgrade of the water filtration and purification systems at various elementary and high schools.
– cover ramps and repair railings at Kean.
The Phase III projects are:
– design and construction of a cafeteria at Cancryn.
– construction of classroom buildings at Cancryn.
– expansion of the Ulla Muller Elementary School cafeteria.
– and new construction at Dober.
A master contract has been executed between Caribbean Professional Consultants Inc., and the PFA to work on projects on behalf of the Education Department; however, construction work has not yet begun.
Edmund Blaize, chief operating officer of CPC, told the committee that CPC has completed scopes of work for schools with accreditation issues because the department did not have anyone on staff to determine scope of work.
However, he added, "CPC cannot begin any project until PFA gives us authorization."
Senators were bemused by his statement because two weeks ago PFA Director of Finance and Administration Kenneth Mapp told the same senators that he was not responsible for overseeing the management of capital projects, but rather to obtain the necessary funding.
Davis and Sen. Usie Richards both asked Blaize again whether it was the PFA or the Education Department that was responsible for giving them the go-ahead to work on the projects. Blaize said, according to CPC's contract, it is the PFA.
Judy M. Gomez, chairwoman of the V.I. Board of Education, told the committee the board has begun its tours of schools as required by law. The board is required to report its findings to the governor and the Legislature no later than June 15. Schools visited on St. Thomas were CAHS and Cancryn.
Gomez said the board paid "particular attention to Cancryn" because of the "numerous concerns" facing the school and focused on three main areas needing to be addressed: repairs and replacement of resources lost in the 2004 fire; repair to the overhead crosswalk, which was damaged when it was struck by a tractor trailer more than a year ago; and general maintenance issues.
"If a child dies, then how long will it take for the bridge to be fixed?" Sen. Craig Barshinger asked Michael, relative to the crosswalk issue.
Michael said she could not answer because t
hat responsibility lies with Public Works Commissioner Wayne Callwood, who was invited to testify but failed to appear.
Gomez said, at CAHS the board found a "potentially major problem" with an aging sewage system running under the schools parking lot, which may require major excavation.
Gomez said the disrepair of the schools is due in part to: the lack of facilities planning, architectural or engineering staff; the lack of a comprehensive program for school maintenance; and the inadequacy of school imprest funds, which are funds given directly to each school to use for minor maintenance, according to Gomez.
"The board found that in general, imprest awards, which are made on a per pupil basis, average between $20 and $30 per pupil," Gomez said, which is lower than in other jurisdictions.
The local American Federation of Teachers President Vernelle deLagarde also aired her concerns before the committee.
"Many of our schools are in dire need of repair, if not demolition," deLagarde said. "Our educators, paraprofessionals and support staff are on a daily basis dealing with hot classrooms infested with rodents, mosquitoes, iguanas, and in some cases pigeon droppings and electrical problems. Mold is on the rise, hence attributing to upper respiratory problems in rooms with and without air conditioning."
DeLagarde added, "A conducive environment is essential for a productive education."
The AFT president said she could not understand how more than $2 million in federal funds allocated for the territory had to be reverted to the federal government unused, especially when schools are in need of repairs and cut backs are being made both locally and federally.
"Cognizant of the fact that cut backs are made on the national level, one would tend to believe that we would utilize all of our resources on the local level to meet the needs of our students," deLagarde said, referring to a Source article. (See: "Analysis: V.I. Schools Fail To Use $2.9 million in Federal Funds").
She added, "This news, at a time when we are also told that there's $1 million at the PFA for textbooks for our students, shows that something is drastically wrong in the USVI Department of Education."
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville asked Michael whether the monies that were sent back had any funds for school repairs.
"No there were not," Michael responded. Michael said federal grants specify how funds are to be used and could not be use arbitrarily.
Sen. Roosevelt David said, "We continue to appropriate money, and it is going into a black hole. Over the years, I have been personally involved in appropriating $2 billion dollars to the Department of Education."
David said he believes the structure of the Education Department has to change. He added he doesn't believe money is a problem for the department.
Senators urged Michael to see to it that repairs took place at the territory's schools.
One parent of a Cancryn student, Cherie Wheatley, told the committee that solutions to the problems facing the school may be as simple as thinking innovatively.
"We need to think outside the box if we are going to solve the problems that are plaguing our schools," Wheatley said.
Committee members attending the hearing were: Sens. Davis, David, Figueroa-Serville, Richards. Sens. Louis Hill, Shawn-Michael Malone and Terrence "Positive" Nelson were excused. Barshinger, who is not a member of the committee, was also present.
The committee will hold a hearing Wednesday evening at 6 p.m. on St. Croix to address the concerns of that island. A hearing will also take place Monday on St. John.
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