Undercurrents: Public Schools Need a Major Makeover

A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

The test facing local Education officials, along with federal partners, is daunting: Bring Virgin Islands public school buildings up to standard.

Initiated by the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs and overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the effort is underway. It’s fueled largely by Interior grant funds, but federal officials have told Virgin Islands leaders the territory needs to pay its part.

The Virgin Islands is just one of four U.S. territories involved in an ambitious attempt by Interior to assess and upgrade public schools in insular areas. It’s concentrating on health and safety aspects.

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An Assessment of Buildings and Classrooms (ABC in Education-speak) was conducted throughout Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the USVI between May 2012 and June 2013. The survey included some site inspections as well as information gathered from school principals and other Education officials. In all, the assessment team examined the physical condition of 1,576 buildings at 115 elementary and secondary schools – including 32 public schools and a total of 344 buildings in the Virgin Islands.

The report that came out of the study was billed “the first-ever baseline inventory and condition assessment of the insular K-12 public schools.”

As expected, it documented a troubling list of deficiencies. Major shortcomings for V.I. schools included the following:

– Inadequate fire protection on or near campus,

– Lack of emergency vehicle access,

– Lack of backblow prevention,

– Poor vehicle circulation and concerns for pedestrian safety,

– Inadequate perimeter fencing and gates,

– Lack of drainage plans of engineering,

– Inadequate drainage system maintenance,

– Inadequate roadway drainage and surface maintenance,

– Corroding rebar and spelled concrete,

– Deteriorated wood elements,

– Plumbing leaks,

– Exposed electrical elements,

– Air quality concerns, and

– Lack of weatherproofing.

The Virgin Islands’ status was not significantly different overall from the other territories’. All four areas had problems in the first three categories on the above list, for instance, and at least one or another territory had problems with all the others. Conversely, the Virgin Islands did not have some of the problems attributed to other territories, specifically with sewage backup, septic tank or leaching fields, or the potable water system.

However, the V.I. does stand out for the amount of deferred maintenance – that is, work that officials know needs to be done but which is being put off, generally because of a lack of funding. According to the report, the VI’s deferred maintenance would cost $66.2 million. Only Guam had a higher DM, $89.9 million, while the other two territories showed $10.5 million (Northern Marianna’s) and $10 million (American Samoa.)

The report also singles out Virgin Islands schools as being especially vulnerable to earthquakes.

“The historic unreinforced stone masonry buildings found in the USVI were identified to be the most deficient compared to current building standards,” the report reads. “These building are well built, and proven to be resilient over the decades, but are expected to be vulnerable to a large earthquake given the level of seismicity in the region. It is recommended that further structural assessments and probable retrofits be performed for regularly occupied and historically significant buildings.”

It goes on to say that the work to shore up buildings against earthquake should take priority over work to make them less susceptible to wind damage. The reasoning is that a hurricane or tropical storm is not likely to strike without warning as is an earthquake, so there is far less chance of a school being occupied during a bad storm than during an earthquake.

And by the way … The report notes some “collateral findings” – things noticed, although they weren’t really within the scope of the work.

For the Virgin Islands, surveyors reported a “general need for greater oversight during project building and execution” in order to ensure that materials and installation specifications are met, especially for roofing and other exterior work.

It also noted that in several cases “there was inadequate planning for adding structures (to existing campuses) with the result of congestion, obstructed natural ventilation, vehicle circulation impacts and site drainage problems.” 

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