Board of Education Tightens Belt

The V.I. Board of Education Saturday trimmed its spending plans for the fiscal year in response to an 11-percent reduction to its requested budget by the Senate.

In its brief meeting Saturday, board also approved new certifications and addressed public concerns regarding block scheduling and the school lunch program.

The meeting, presided by board Chairman Oswin Sewer, was conducted via videoconference. St. Thomas-St. John district members Judy Gomez, Arah Lockhart and Nandi Sekou were present in the board’s St. Thomas conference room. St. Croix district members Winona Hendricks, Terrence Joseph, and later in the meeting, Martial Webster, were present in the St. Croix office. Mary Moorhead and Debra Smith-Watlington were absent.

Board members discussed cost-saving measures in light of their reduced budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Of the board’s original request for about $2 million, the Legislature approved only $1.78 million, an 11-percent decrease.

After considering cost-cutting options presented by Laurie Isaac, director of business and finance, the board adopted a budget it said would cause the least disruption, with cuts in maintenance and repairs, advertising and promotions, training, and the budget category "other."

Sekou, who made the motion to approve the revisions, suggested the board break down amounts in the “other” category and allocate them to existing committees.

“It seems that there is no planning on our part in terms of how the money is to be spent,” Sekou said about amounts being moved freely between budget line items. “I would like to see better planning because I am almost certain that we will receive another cut, and what happens then?”

Joseph responded, “If we get cut again, then you cut the board. You might as well cut everything.”

The new budget distribution, after the board’s adjustments, fell more or less within the Legislature’s constraints. However, the possibility of future cuts on top of the present reduction, prompted Hendricks to move and the board to adopt, a recommendation that the board’s executive committee meet with Sen. Clifford Graham, Finance Committee chair, to appeal the Legislature-approved budget.

In other action, the board:

• Heard concerns from parent Harriet Mercer regarding the new process used to prepare public school lunches.

“We want the process gone,“ Mercer told the board, claiming that “pre-packaged, pre-processed, boil-in-the-bag” food impedes the learning process and has caused adverse reaction among students.

Gomez suggested the board convene a public hearing with parents, the Department of Education, and other concerned parties to discuss the matter, but Lockhart was not so sure about that this move.

“I don’t know that the board is in a position to justify calling a public hearing on a concern that truly has not come to us with the exception of through you,” she said, recommending that Mercer mobilize other parents to gather more voices.

Mercer said that an online petition to scrap the new lunch preparation process has already gathered some 150 parent signatures, and a paper petition is being passed around.

• Parent Laverne Slack raised strong concerns regarding block scheduling, saying the program “is not working.” For example, a student may be given English class from September to January, then not see English again until the following September.

“Seven months without a consistent course is a problem,” Slack said.

Block scheduling, approved by the board, 6-3, in January 2007, took students from seven 50-minute classes a day to four 90-minute classes a day. The new scheduling policy was intended to improve student performance in language arts and math, while also addressing staffing and space inadequacies.

Slack, however, insisted that “there is a lack” in a seven-month gap between classes on any subject offered in the high school level.

Hendricks agreed that the board has not seen statistics on the real effects of block scheduling, and cited University of the Virgin Islands statistics indicating that many public school graduates entering UVI need to take math and language arts skills classes.

• Approved 71 certificates for 61 people in the St. Thomas/St. John district, and 23 certifications for 21 people in the St. Croix district.

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