Several years of budget cuts and the V.I. government’s current year massive funding shortfall have delayed contracted school pay raises, hurting morale and recruitment, and making it harder to fill a growing list of important vacancies, Education Department and union representatives told a Senate committee Thursday.
Acting Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum told the Education and Workforce Development Committee there are currently175 school-based vacancies, including core and hard-to-fill areas. That is up from the 147 vacancies that had the department very concerned during budget hearings last year. (See Related Links below)
Since the opening of the 2014-15 school year, 104 employees have left the school system, with 72 resignation and 32 retirements, McCollum said. In addition, there are 328 school-based professionals territorywide eligible for retirement who can opt to do so at the end of this school year, she said.
Part of the problem in recruiting is that the V.I. Education Department cannot offer competitive salaries, sign-on bonuses or housing allowances, even in normal budgetary times, McCollum said. To fill the gap, the school system has been relying heavily on 151 substitute teachers, many of whom are retired teaches.
"It must be duly noted that the department’s inability to pay outstanding wage increases presents a significant concern," McCollum said. "Employee morale is at an all-time low as inflation increases and continues to erode their disposable income, but salaries remain stagnant. As previously mentioned, current employees are exiting the system for better paying jobs elsewhere.”
“Many who remain are compelled to hold second and third jobs to make ends meet. It is imperative that we explore creative ways to address this challenge or continue to encounter hurdles in staffing our schools," she said.
Union officials strongly agreed on that point.
"The Virgin Islands government has been doling out money for salary increases to top government officials, yet AFT members are still owed pay increases for the 2010-2011 salary schedules," said St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas.
"Members are livid that other folks who just arrived were given salary increases while they are placed on the back burner," Soto-Thomas said, referring to pay increases for several of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s cabinet nominees.
A recurring theme among testifiers was the decline in funding from federal and local government agencies.
McCollum said that she has received a directive from the Office of Management and Budget to reduce her budget for the current fiscal year by $12 million and to be prepared to do the same for fiscal year 2016.
“Over the past seven years (2009-2015), VIDE has absorbed more than $43 million in budget cuts,” McCollum said. “VIDE is unable to offer higher salaries, sign-on bonuses and housing allowances as other jurisdictions. This has created an obstacle for us to attract and retain highly qualified teachers.”
“In fact,” McCollum continued, “several teachers have verbally expressed their desire to leave the territory in search of better economic opportunities. Currently the department utilizes the 2009-2010 pay scale, which only allows us to make salary offers to applicants ranging between $32,000 and a cap of $46,875,” McCollum said.
Sen. Jean Forde, chairman of the committee, said he hoped the hearing and future ones would help point towards solutions and not just point blame. “The tone of this committee will be of problem solving and bringing forth solutions,” he said.
Forde continued, “Indeed it is very easy and popular to concentrate on finding problems and blaming others. That is not the approach of this chairman. I urge the members of our community to follow these hearings closely and to contact us with your ideas and issues and suggestions.”
Committee members present included Sens. Kenneth Gittens, Justin Harrigan, Myron Jackson, Terrence “Positive” Nelson, Tregenza Roach and Kurt Vialet. Noncommittee members present were Sens. Marvin Blyden and Novelle Francis.