Media reports published this week about the state of the Education Department’s facilities painted an unclear picture of what’s actually going on, according to Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum.
Speaking to the Rotary Club of St. Thomas II on Wednesday, McCollum said that while the facilities are not perfect, they are the victims of more than two decades of deferred maintenance that she said cannot be fixed in one summer.
This year repairs started as soon as schools closed but McCollum said that even after “aggressive” work over the summer, there is still a lot to do.
“Do we have money to build new schools?” she asked the group. “No, we do not. But we do we acknowledge the fact that we need to build new ones.”
McCollum said, “The average age of our buildings is 40 to 45 years old, so we do need to build schools but this will be seriously affected by bond market, since our credit rating been affected because of what has been going on in Puerto Rico.”
McCollum said she has requested more than $50 million in bond money for Education alone but doesn’t know if it will come the department’s way anytime soon. If it does, most will be earmarked for facilities and the building of new schools but, in the meantime, McCollum said the Army Corps of Engineers has been working locally on recommendations made two years ago in a report they released on the state of the schools and what needs to be fixed.
The agency has resources, manpower and is “letting contracts,” while the department has implemented a “year round” instead of just a summer maintenance strategy for repairs, she said.
“If you had 14,000 people trekking through your living room every day, wouldn’t you expect things to break?” McCollum said of reports published by other media outlets about specific maintenance issues in the schools. “Absolutely. We expect that. We’re prepared for it and we’re going to address it.”
But until everything comes together, McCollum said the focus of the department will be on student achievement.
“Our children have to do better and I’m keenly aware as Education commissioner that our department is the one agency that can help bring change in this community.”
Better programs and higher student achievement can affect the crime rate, improve the quality of the workforce and can help influence more businesses to set up shop on island, McCollum said, adding she has been “pushing” her employees to help “be the change agents” needed to make that happen.
“We’re about transforming the Department of Education,” she said. In the past few months, McCollum said Education has been increasing its communications efforts with advertisements in the movie theaters and local ferry boats and has been putting together different videos to showcase what is going on in the schools.
Improving student achievement is also about bringing in resources to boost student interests, and McCollum said that a territorial athletics director and territorial music director – Peter Seipel and Dionne Donadelle from Ivanna Eudora Kean High School – have been brought on to increase sports and music programs that students tend to excel in.
A director of agriculture has been brought in on St. Thomas and has been hired St. Croix, and McCollum said that a partnership with farmers on St. Croix will also bring in for the school lunch program a shipment melons and watermelons in October.
McCollum said hydroponic farms, like the one at IEKHS, will be established in all the schools along with table gardens that will help students supply seasonings for food in the schools’ cafeterias.
Education will also help reopen the Guy Benjamin School on St. John, which was closed almost two years ago due to low enrollment, she said. A private organization has partnered with the department on the project, and McCollum said the facility will be used as a community center that will help reach out to children on the Coral Bay side of the island. It would also house the St. John School of Performing arts and a public computer center, she said.
More private partnerships and support will help the department continue its efforts, McCollum added.
“There are far more success stories in public schools than there are negatives,” she said to the Rotary group. “And we must all spread those positive things. We must do it for the children and we must do it for the territory. With you as a partner, we can make a positive difference, but it is going to take time. Just know that we have made significant strides already.”