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Terry: Few Glitches Mar Opening of V.I. Schools

Sept. 6, 2008 — Schools opened smoothly for the most part last week, with a few glitches here and there, Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry reported to the Virgin Island Board of Education Saturday.
"The 2008-2009 school year got off to a rather smooth start despite the second day interruption by the AFT's planned sick-out," Terry said. "Everything was not perfect in every school in terms of classroom readiness. However, in general schools were ready to accept students and there were no closures related to plant issues."
Air conditioning problems and leaks after recent rains accounted for most of the difficulties, she said.
Things were a bit more problematic on St. Croix.
"St. Croix schools opened smoothly with the exception of the John H. Woodson Jr. High School," she said. There, teachers staged a protest, refusing to report to their classes until several issues were addressed. These included professional cleaning for the classrooms, reducing the temperature to less than 89 degrees by Sept. 2, repair windows and begin scheduled air conditioning installation for 47 classrooms.
Since then, the rooms were cleaned, Public Works is planning work on windows and air conditioning, and Education bought 104 fans for the classrooms and gymnasium.
This year, students in both districts who had been in alternative education are being merged into the regular classrooms.
"Staff assigned to EWAA (Edith Williams Alternative Academy) have been deployed to schools to assist former EWAA students and schools to develop individualized academic plans," Terry said.
On St. Croix, the Positive Connection Alternative Program has been shut down. (See: "Education Department Closing St. Croix Alternative School.")
During school reopening, the alternative education director; Victor Somme III, visited all the junior high schools to participate in orientation.
"This was necessary for the smooth transitioning of former Positive Connection Alternative Program students to their home schools," she said.
Somme will continue to visit weekly to provide support and guidance to both students and the administration and staff, and will be charged with ensuring students receive the "wraparound" services they need, Terry said.
A number of teachers have resigned over the past few weeks, leaving a shortage of more than 50 teachers territory-wide.
"We've been getting one or two resignations a day in the last several weeks," said Alscess Lewis-Brown, director of personnel for Education.
Teachers are waiting until the last minute to resign to ensure they have a fallback job and to ensure they continue to have medical benefits, Terry and Lewis-Brown said.
Karen Marsal, of Marsal and Alvarez, the third-party fiduciary hired by Education to oversee all federal grants, was scheduled to appear and testify about the status of efforts to obligate past year's federal grant funds. But Marsal was forced to cancel, board chairwoman Debra Smith Watlington said, and had flown to Miami to secure her property there in preparation for Hurricane Ike.
"She said in her letter she would be happy to appear at a future time," Watlington said.
"I'm concerned about the third-party fiduciary," said board member Nandi Sekou. "When was the last report, in July?"
Board member Judy M. Gomez said Alvarez and Marsal submitted a written report in July in lieu of appearing in person.
"I think it is important we meet with Marsal soon to see what is happening," said board member Terrence D. Joseph. "Right now it is a question mark. … Are we heading down a road where we have one company after another bleed us in turn?"
"My goal is to see if in fact we are better off now than before," Sekou said.
Board member Jorge "Tito" Galiber moved to have the board draft a letter to the U.S. Department of Education asking for all records and correspondence with Alvarez and Marsal. Other board members said the V.I. Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Education were the appropriate bodies to ask for information.
The board voted to draft letters to both local and federal officials, asking for records of Alvarez and Marsal's activities and expenses.
Shawn Gibson abstained. Voting yes were Watlington, Sekou, Joseph, Galiber, Gomez, Oswin Sewer, Keith Richards and Nereida Rivera O'Reilly.
The next meeting is scheduled for Nov. 8 on St. Thomas.
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