Education 'Turf Wars' Before Senate Committee

There were serious accusations, disgust and anger expressed by stakeholders and senators at the Committee on Education and Workforce Development’s education hearing Monday at the Fritz Lawaetz Conference Room in Frederiksted.

Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory told Sen. Donald Cole, committee chairman, she didn’t receive correspondence that there would be discussions about what he called “festering concerns” in the department. Frett-Gregory said she was only prepared to report on the progress of putting in place an new school calendar.

Recent legislation requires a school year of no less than 1,080 hours; however, problems of overlapping payments for educators, possible lost vacation time and fewer workshops for teachers have delayed formalizing the calendar. Frett-Gregory said holidays, the election and carnival impact the calendar as well.

Union representatives talked about working conditions and pay. Rosa Soto-Thomas, president of the St. Croix Teachers’ Federation, said the schools have not received allotments from the Education Initiative Fund.

Additionally, school psychologists and social workers have not received payment for an additional two hours of work a day implemented in 2012, despite an arbitration ruling in the teachers’ favor in August 2013, Soto-Thomas said.

The Education Department also has not complied with another arbitration case, a collective bargaining agreement won by teachers about working conditions, according to Soto-Thomas. She said schools should be cleaned of trash daily, trash bins emptied regularly, and rodents and pests should be eradicated from schools grounds on a regular basis.

“This should not be optional. Someone needs to explain why this persists from year to year and what resolution is being sought. Is the Education Initiative Fund the culprit? Whatever the reason, this problem needs to be fast tracked and immediately corrected,” Soto-Thomas said.

Other complaints from St. Croix teachers, she testified, include school lunch service and oversight. Cleaning materials are not available; nor is custodial staff, Soto-Thomas said.

“Kitchen managers complain that supplies are sparse to nonexistent. Members have to purchase dishwashing liquid and cleaning supplies. I have been told the requisition process was halted because of a personnel shortage,” she said. Ingredients for state-mandated menus are not available, she added.

Specific schools requiring repairs and renovation included Alexander Henderson Elementary, John H. Woodson Junior High and Claude O. Markoe Elementary, according to Soto-Thomas.

She added that labor relations are strained at several schools and that managers are unfamiliar with union rights, creating some adversarial relationships.

“Due process is too often denied and members’ rights are violated,” Soto-Thomas said. “The department, in many instances, fails to meet at step one. This contributes to further financial hemorrhaging on the part of department officials who, for whatever reason, fail to amicably resolve very minuscule issues,” she said.

Rosa White, president of the St. Croix Educational Administrators Association, also talked about the department’s treatment of staff. Citing “unfair legal practices,” White said labor issues against administrators were not processed properly and sometimes took up to six years to be resolved.

Discipline has been inconsistent and often based on gender, White accused. As an example, 14 administrators have been charged with insubordination, unprofessional conduct and other offenses without “sound foundation,” and all of the females disciplined were suspended without pay, she said. White called the treatment “egregious and criminal at best.”

“Due process was continuously denied by Superintendent Molloy,” White said.

The V.I. Board of Education also delivered severe criticism of education. All secondary and four elementary schools on St. Croix have not met Adequate Yearly Progress measures of the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Terrence Joseph, Education Board secretary; AYP determines if schools are successfully educating students.

Joseph also said there are still no afterschool programs on St. Croix although it is March.

Joseph mentioned problems with school cafeterias and the lunch program and the “hostility” between the superintendent and the educators’ association. He said better programs are needed for training educators and complained the board has not been included in extracurricular activities.

Soto-Thomas and Joseph spoke of staffing shortages. Joseph said 50 substitute teachers are being used on St. Croix.

“School performance is not improving on any level,” Joseph said and also asked the Senate to address the issues.

Several others testified about the state of V.I. education, including representatives from the St. Croix Career and Technical Education board, the St. Croix Educational Complex Parent Student Teachers’ Association, and on behalf of school psychologists and social workers.

After hearing the testifiers, Frett-Gregory asked Cole for permission to make a comment. She said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, she was “honored and flattered” that the department’s challenges had been highlighted by the testifiers. However, the comments by the educational and vocational education boards had not previously been communicated to her, Frett-Gregory said.

“In order to make changes, we must come together. This forum is not the appropriate forum and we all know this. I return every phone call and email. What is occurring here is wrong and wrong for the children of the Virgin Islands,” Frett-Gregory said.

Bickering continued throughout the session between Frett-Gregory, Soto-Thomas, senators and representatives from the board of education.

Cole commented that the committee meeting is not an arbitration. He acknowledged a follow-up meeting will be necessary and later announced May 5 as the earliest possible date.

Legislators spoke harshly about the education system and criticized the Education Department as well as the unions and other organizations for not putting students first.

Sen. Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly compared the session to “turf wars” – fighting about money and power. She asked why there were no student representatives at the hearing.

Similarly Sen. Sammuel Sanes said there was a disconnect between “certain entities and the educational system.” The Legislature shouldn’t meet until the testifiers held discussions, he recommended.

“There have been at least 10 testimonies. These issues should not be coming before this body,” Sanes said.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens spoke angrily. He said the problems didn’t just occur and are not conducive to education.

“I am sitting here today and I’m well annoyed, well annoyed,” he said. “We are violating collective bargaining agreements. Why are we expending government resources when an arbitrator ruled?”

Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson, clearly miffed during the session, said there is no money to pay physiologist and social workers for working another two hours a day. He pointed out that many teachers work until late at night and arrive at school early in the morning.

“So back up, commissioner, and make a decision and fix it,” he advised. “We need a mindset change. I’m not here to attack, but education is the turning point of any person’s life.”

Also attending the meeting were Sens. Tregenza Roach, Myron Jackson and Diane Capehart, who is not a committee member.

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