With 39 employees territorywide walking off the job either just before or right after the school year began, the Department of Education is plagued with teacher shortages, according to Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.
The department is also facing a “large number” of employees who could retire at the end of this year after having fulfilled their 30 years of service requirement.
Education officials have tried to fill the gaps by recruiting off-island, a task hampered by the high cost of living in the territory, explained Frett-Gregory.
“If a candidate is interested in coming to the Virgin Islands, of course we try to provide them with a packet that provides all the information they need about housing and all the amenities relative to living here,” said the commissioner. “We share with them the cost of living and we invite them to explore the real estate here and look at what it costs.”
“A lot of times once they get that information, they sort of basically run off from us,” Frett-Gregory said. “We had two teachers from off-island this year, one on St. John and one on St. Thomas. One of them left before school opened and the other stayed for a little while and left on the heels of school opening. He said he could not economically do it.”
A first year teacher with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $32,000, according to Education’s human resources office. With the islands seeing some of the highest costs of groceries, utilities and rent in the country, many teachers simply look elsewhere after finding out about the department’s pay scale, according to Frett-Gregory.
“I would say yes, being honest, our starting salary does impact our ability to attract teachers here in the territory,” she said.
The department has tried to recruit native Virgin Islanders who are living off-island and offer incentives like professional development, but it has been affected by budget cuts, Frett-Gregory said.
“We’ve focused also on teachers who were born here and are living away but it’s challenging. We need to look at giving them more incentives but, of course, based on our budget over the past five or six years, that has been difficult. We need to get to a place where we are able to do that again.”
“One of the things we need to do in our schools and collectively as a territory is have conversations about the importance of coming back and serving the territory,” said Frett-Gregory. “But it’s two-fold. Why would you come back? We need to make sure the quality of life is worth it.”
As an incentive to international teachers, the department had offered visa documents to recruits, however, many teachers left the territory once they secured their working papers, Frett-Gregory explained.
“What we found was a number of people who were approved for visas actually left and moved to the states,” she said. “But we are still working on the international teacher initiative. We just got approval from the U.S. State Department to begin recruiting again.”
Education is also focusing on recruiting new college graduates from City University of New York, State University of New York, Purdue University, Universidad Inter-Americana de Puerto Rico, the University of the Virgin Islands and several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, according to Frett-Gregory.
“We are looking at those school as well as other HBCUs and we are working very closely with UVI to ensure that what they do is aligned with what we need in the classrooms,” she said.
The problems plaguing Education will not end, however, until the territory as a whole improves its economic situation, Frett-Gregory explained.
“I will say that our economy must improve,” she said. “If we see an improvement in our economic situation and we really set priorities, then we will see a major shift. Of course every agency in this government wants to be a priority, but it’s up to the leadership of the territory to determine what the priorities are.”
“From the leadership down, from the executive branch to the legislative branch, we must come together to truly make education a priority,” said the commissioner. “From my perspective, things will not progress until we see a better economy in the territory. We need to ensure that the quality of life is something that is amendable.”
Without a bigger budget or the ability to offer more competitive pay, Education’s fate is tied up with the territory’s economy, Frett-Gregory explained.
“To me it’s all tied to the direction the territory needs to go in,” she said. “Once we see an overall improvement in our economics, then we’ll be in a better place to begin to attract teachers here.”