Undercurrents: Victims of Financial Fudging? School Children and the Disabled

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

Ho hum. So the government doesn’t have enough money to maintain its schools? So it doesn’t provide adequate transportation services for disabled people? So what else is new?

It’s hard not to become deaf to the steady beat of economic shortfalls raining through the territory, to become inured to the resultant damp that’s molding its institutions and rotting its services.

Recently the Dial-A-Ride program on St. Thomas collapsed under the weight of debt attributed, in large part, to the government’s failure to provide customary funding.

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Meanwhile, Virgin Islands and U.S. officials have begun a long-overdue physical make-over of V.I. public schools with little more than seed money from the federal government and hopes that the local government will somehow suddenly find a new source of money to cover the literally millions of dollars it should have been spending on its academic corridors all along.

ABCs (Assessment of Buildings and Classrooms) Effort

The good news, of course, is that at least something really seems to be happening to improve the schools.

Responding to requests, the V.I. Education Department this week provided the Source with a fact sheet about the so-called ABC effort, the attempt to get public schools in the V.I., the Northern Marianas, American Samoa and Guam (U.S. insular areas that were part of a comprehensive assessment culminating in 2013) back on track for regular, ongoing maintenance, particularly items that impact health and safety.

As a major part of the project, the Interior Department’s Insular Affairs Office is trying to address a backlog of so-called deferred maintenance projects in each of the territories. It’s working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which hired a Honolulu planning firm, HHF Planners, to conduct the actual assessment.

“Execution of the DM reduction program is now underway with the deployment of program managers to each territory in late 2015, and will extend through fiscal year 2019,” according to the Fact Sheet. “The highest priority projects involve structural and electrical system repairs and generally restoring the building envelopes to eliminate water infiltration (which accelerates building system decay and contributes to poor learning environments.)”

The program manager hired by the Army Corps of Engineers through HHF is Brian Turnbull, who has worked in middle management in a number of V.I. government departments and agencies as well as in the private sector.

Overseeing the work for the Department of Education is James Bernier, the department’s territorial director of capital projects and facilities.

In a written statement released through Education spokeswoman Cynthia Graham, Bernier said problems in the schools accumulated over decades, “due to a continuous insufficient(ly) funded Maintenance Program” and has created a “backlog of over $71 million that continues to quickly climb due both (to) the continuous rising cost of construction and due to GVI’s continued lack of providing sufficient funding yearly to maintain the 2.5 million square feet of schools.”

The federal assessment determined that a minimum of $20 million is needed each year for ongoing maintenance to V.I. public schools – aside from the deferred maintenance costs – Bernier said. Yet for the last fiscal year the department received only $1.7 million per district, or $3.4 million, and the ongoing maintenance funding “continues to be reduced each and every fiscal year.”

Interior and the Virgin Islands have agreed on a five-year plan (which has not been released publicly) to address what both agree are the most critical needs. Interior has set aside $1 million per territory annually for the next five years, and, according to the fact sheet, “Governors are encouraged to set aside an additional amount. The USVI Governor set aside an additional $2 million in 2015.”

That still leaves about 90 percent of the Virgin Island’s deferred maintenance uncovered, according to Bernier. He predicted the amount will continue to climb “until funding is properly established by the V.I. Legislature through a brand new funding revenue source to finally meet the overall yearly maintenance objectives of VIDE.”

Dial-A-Ride Still ‘Temporarily’ Closed

Sen. Marvin Blyden said last week he still hopes to find money to reopen Dial-A-Ride, the non-profit organization that was the leading agency in providing transportation for disabled and elderly residents and tourists on St. Thomas, starting in the 1980s.

Blyden did find $20,000 for the organization, “but it was not enough” he said. The money covered some back-pay for staff who had continued to work despite budget shortfalls that turned them into unpaid volunteers for weeks.

Dial-A-Ride was funded in part by fees it charged, but relied heavily on government appropriations so it could offer subsidized services to needy residents.

Many residents and officials said they were surprised when the agency stopped operating late last month, despite warning signals from Dial-A-Ride officers who complained funding has been decreasing for years. Executive Director Rosemary Sumas said last May that appropriations to the V.I. Coalition for Citizens with Disabilities, Dial-A-Ride’s parent, had dwindled from a high of $150,000 to approximately $50,000 last year.
Blyden held a committee hearing two weeks ago, addressing the broad issue of transportation and focusing particularly on the government’s direct transportation service for the disabled through VITRAN. He said he is aware that another private group, Able Transportation, is also starting up and intends to offer service to the disabled. He believes there’s room for it as well as VITRAN and for Dial-A-Ride.

“They can all work in the same space because there’s a need,” he said. “My thing is to work with Dial-A-Ride and try to get them where they need to be.”

He said he’s working with legislative colleagues to find funding.  

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