The senators at Monday’s Education and Workforce Committee meeting held at the Legislature building on St. John pushed and prodded Education Department officials about the Guy Benjamin School closure but came away unsatisfied with the answers. Officials announced the school would close on June 9.
Those students will now be bused across St. John to Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay.
“Every question has generated a vague response,” Sen. Tregenza Roach said toward the close of the meeting.
Although the senators asked in many different ways how much the department would save by closing the school, St. Thomas/St. John District Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry said repeatedly that it was a matter of “human capital,” meaning it doesn’t have enough teachers.
She said that, as of June 20, the department had 137 teacher and nurse vacancies. Fifty-four of those are in St. Thomas/St. John and 90 in St. Croix.
Putting some numbers on how the shortage plays out, she said Sprauve School has 41 students registered for first grade. She said that since the union contract set the maximum class size for that grade at 30 students, the school would need to have two classes. Guy Benjamin would have eight students in the first grade. If the school remained open, the department would need to have a total of three first grade teachers at the two schools. By moving the Guy Benjamin students to Sprauve, there will be a total of 49 students, which means the department needs only two teachers since it’s within the allowable maximum class size for two classes.
Smith-Barry said that St. John parents may pick either Guy Benjamin or Sprauve for the children to attend. However, not enough Sprauve parents wanted to send their children to Guy Benjamin to beef up the enrollment enough to make it feasible to keep the school open.
“We gave the parents all the opportunity but the parents chose not to do that,” she said.
That explanation didn’t satisfy many of the senators who wanted hard numbers.
Eventually Clarisa Warrington, Education’s deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, said that bulk of the $1.1 million it cost a year to operate Guy Benjamin went to pay salaries and fringe benefits. She put the total paid to staff in salary and benefits at $886,000.
Warrington testified in lieu of Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, whose absence irked Committee Chairman Donald Cole because she didn’t let the committee know she wasn’t going to attend.
When Warrington said she wouldn’t be able to come up with a cost analysis for three different scenarios concerning the school by next week, Sen. Craig Barshinger, who is not a committee member, asked Sen. Jeanette Millin-Young to propose a motion requiring the department to do the cost analysis by June 30. It passed with all five senators in attendance when the vote was taken saying yes.
The scenarios include closing the school or keeping it open with 75 students, which is two more than are currently registered. The third was keeping it open but using proposals made by Board of Education Chairman Oswin Sewer that included combining kindergarten and first grade as well as second and third grades and fourth and fifth grades.
Sewer also suggested putting all the island’s students in pre-kindergarten through grades three/four at the school. That proposal would require busing students from Cruz Bay to Coral Bay.
Since Guy Benjamin is closed, the department will have to bus students to Sprauve.
Smith-Barry said that of the 55 children who attended Guy Benjamin this school year, only 32 students will require busing in addition to the seventh and eighth graders already bused from Coral Bay to Cruz Bay. She said that some of Guy Benjamin’s students live in Cruz Bay so will be within walking distance of the school.
“We don’t see the need for additional buses,” she said, indicating there is space on the bus for the additional students.
She said that the bus company gets paid by the mile so some additional miles may be required because of the 32 additional students.
With the additional students from Guy Benjamin, school Principal Dionne Wells Sprauve will have a total of 336 students. The school has a capacity of 700, but it can comfortably accommodate 400, Wells said.
While several people noted that Guy Benjamin’s smallness made it special, Smith-Barry said that was true but reality dictated closing the school.
Smith-Barry was adamant that the land on which Guy Benjamin sits won’t be usurped for a proposed marina planned on land owned by the Moravian Church. That land is adjacent to the school. A marina to be built by Summer’s End Co. is also in the works for an as-yet unspecified area of Coral Bay that sits across the harbor from the school.
In response to allegations that Guy Benjamin parents didn’t want to send their children to Sprauve because of its proximity to bars and traffic, Smith-Barry took umbrage.
“It’s good for some students but not for other students? All of our students are worthy,” Smith-Barry said.
Several people asked about the efforts to build a new school on St. John that would have space for all the island’s elementary and high school students. After many years of discussion, St. John residents are still waiting.
“That’s what you borrow for,” Barshinger said, urging the department to keep Guy Benjamin open until the new school is built.
Late in the meeting, St. John residents had a chance to testify. Iris Kern summed it up.
“The children of St. John deserve far better,” she said.
In addition to Roach, Millin-Young and Cole, Sens. Myron Jackson, Nereida “Nellie” Rivera-O’Reilly and Sammuel Sanes attended the meeting. Sen. Judy Buckley was absent. In addition to Barshinger, noncommittee members who attended the meeting included Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Diane Capehart and Clifford Graham.