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Constitutional Convention Proposal Would Revamp School Board

Sept. 4, 2008 — The elected V.I. Board of Education would be redesigned and have ultimate authority over public education under draft text presented Thursday at a plenary session of the Fifth V.I. Constitutional Convention.
It was a nuts-and-bolts, rubber-to-the-road day as delegate Mary Moorhead read draft text created by the Committee on Education, Youth and Culture. She and delegate Lois Hassell-Habtes heard comments, answered questions and took down suggestions from their fellow delegates to take back to the committee for consideration in the final draft.
The education board would have "all powers over the educational matters of the Virgin Islands," and would select and oversee superintendents for each school district, according to the proposal. It would take over the duties of the V.I. Board of Technical Education, too. The board would have 14 members, half elected from each district. Under the draft language, no more than four members from each district may be in the same political party, a provision that drew some question from delegate Richard Schrader.
"I don't think we should be using the constitution to decide the outcome of elections," he said.
Schrader said he can appreciate the goal of ensuring wide access to the board, but would instead use the constitution to create more or less equal access.
"I think it should be a matter of whoever runs and is the best qualified," he said. "So I recommend changing that sentence making reference to party."
Some passages came under scrutiny for possibly being too specific for a constitution. One passage says that by 2012 the Virgin Islands will ensure there are no more than 15 students per class up to grade seven and no more than 20 in grades eight through 12.
"I feel a constitution should be a timeless document," Schrader said. "That being the case, I don't think it should have any specific dates within it."
Delegate Clement Magras agreed.
"This is something that belongs in a bargaining agreement," he said. "Specifically, the negotiations with teachers on classroom size. I think stating a philosophy of keeping classroom sizes to a minimum would be fine. But it will be very easy for the teachers union to take the government to court if we ever deviate from the numbers here."
Hassell-Habtes countered that classroom size is of such importance the opportunity must be seized to cement it in stone.
"We have seen the effects of too-large classes for the past three to four generations," she said. "That is why we decided to put the specificity we have in here."
The employment of children under 16 in any occupation is prohibited in the draft text. Under existing law, 15 is the cutoff. Hassel-Habtes, Magras and others argued that with the territory's high dropout rate, they don't want work to seem preferable to school.
Delegate Kendall Petersen opposed a blanket prohibition on teen employment, saying struggling families sometimes need the extra income from a teenager's job. He suggested limiting employment during the school week or during school hours instead.
Delegate Robert Schuster agreed.
"My concern would be we could be putting a burden on some families who are struggling with their bills, with WAPA (Water and Power Authority) bills so high," he said.
Responded Moorhead, "That's not the responsibility of the government. Its responsibility is providing opportunities for the community as a whole."
Delegate Douglas Brady objected that, while the goal is worthwhile, it isn't the province of a constitution.
"What you just read seems to me like a regulation from the Department of Labor," he said. "Which is exactly where a lot of this language should be. This is not constitutional stuff. We should be laying out the framework of the government and then the government in place puts in the fine details."
The document also describes an educational philosophy, laying out a commitment to public education and emphasizing a commitment to a curriculum promoting and preserving a V.I. cultural identity and heritage, with programs responding to the needs of a community "predominantly of African descent."
Several delegates suggested that instruction about African heritage should be specifically included, along with V.I. heritage.
Moorhead and Hassel-Habtes said they would take the comments back to the committee and work on a final draft.
Meetings scheduled for next week have been rescheduled. Before adjourning the plenary session, the delegates determined to meet in plenary session again Sep. 23 and 24 at a time and place to be announced. Twenty of the 30 delegates were present, but a quorum is 21. There was no quorum and no votes were taken.
Present were Brady, Rena Brodhurst, Adelbert Bryan, Gerard Emanuel, Mario Francis, Hassell-Habtes, Stedman Hodge Jr., Magras, Thomas Moore, Moorhead, Dr. Eugene Petersen, Kendall Petersen, Clair Roker, Schrader, Schuster, Lawrence Sewer, Michael Thurland, Elsie Thomas-Trotman, Alecia Wells and Lisa Williams. Absent were Craig Barshinger, Douglas Capdeville, Arnold Golden, Violet Anne Golden, Francis Jackson, Myron Jackson, Wilma Marsh Monsanto, Charles Turnbull, Arturo Watlington Jr. and Gerard Luz James II.
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