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HomeNewsLocal newsAt STX School Groundbreaking, Bryan Urges Action on STJ School Land Swap

At STX School Groundbreaking, Bryan Urges Action on STJ School Land Swap

Government House, Education and other officials break ground Thursday for the new Arthur A. Richards school on St. Croix. (Photo courtesy Government House)
Government House, Education and other officials break ground Thursday for the new Arthur A. Richards school on St. Croix. (Photo courtesy Government House)

As dignitaries gathered for Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony for the new Arthur A. Richards school on St. Croix — the territory’s first new public school in 27 years — Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. urged residents to act now to provide a school for students on St. John.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. speaks at Thursday's groundbreaking for the new Arthur A. Richards school on St. Croix. (Photo courtesy Government House)
Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. speaks at Thursday’s groundbreaking for the new Arthur A. Richards school on St. Croix. (Photo courtesy Government House)

Bryan’s statement came in response to opposition by some to a land-swap on St. John between the V.I. government and the National Park Service that would allow moving ahead with construction of a new school on the island.

The NPS has agreed to extend the comment period through March 15 to give the public more time to weigh in on the proposed land swap between the federal and territorial governments. It had been set to expire Feb. 15.

Multiple requests for an extension were made by ancestral St. Johnians at a three-hour online town hall meeting on the proposal held Monday afternoon.

A video of the meeting, co-hosted by V.I. Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett and Senator-at-large Angel Bolques, is available on Plaskett’s Facebook page.

The exchange of properties would allow the territory to take advantage of Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to build a new pre-K to 12 school in Estate Catherineberg on St. John.

Under the proposal, the V.I. government would give the NPS title to 17.9-acre Whistling Cay. In exchange, the NPS would give the territory 11.3 acres of property in Estate Catherineberg and a cash payment of $210,000. Details of the proposal are available here.

At Monday’s meeting, there was little disagreement about the value of building a new school on St. John. Students attending the Julius E. Sprauve School — St. John’s only public school — have been attending classes in temporary modular units since Hurricane Irma hit in 2017.

However, a half dozen ancestral St. Johnians said the federal government should simply give the land to the people of the Virgin Islands rather than requiring the territory to relinquish title to Whistling Cay.

They said their families had already sold or donated land when the Virgin Islands National Park was established, and it’s time for the federal government to give something back.

However, Plaskett and Education officials have said such negotiations could take 10 years or more, likely would not be successful, and any delays in the project could result in the total loss of FEMA funding and construction costs rising.

Bryan said Thursday that the priority should be for building a school on St. John and while a land swap is not the ideal solution he would want, it can make the school a reality now and letting this opportunity pass by could result in another decade before a better solution is found.

“When I hear what is going on on St. John with people protesting against the land swap and the school, I remember we’ve been talking about that school for 20 years,” the governor said. “The fact of the matter is that we have to consider the options that are before us when we move forward. We can’t consider options that are not before us,” he said.

“I don’t like the fact that we have to swap out land with the National Park. Who likes that?” Bryan said. “But guess what, it’s either do that now or do nothing at all. And that’s what we have to remember. It’s either that or nothing at all. Because we’ll be sitting and spinning our wheels and wishing on the wind that it will happen, and 40 years from now when this new school is falling apart, we still won’t have one on St. John.”

An artist’s rendering of new Arthur A. Richards Pre-K to 8th Grade School on St. Croix, to be built on the former Evelyn M. Williams Elementary site east of Frederiksted. (Image courtesy V.I. Education Department)

Meanwhile, work is underway to construct the new Arthur A. Richards Pre-K to Eight school on St. Croix, which will be built on the old Evelyn M. Williams Elementary property. Completion is expected by the summer of 2025, according to the Education Department.

The new facility, east of Frederiksted, will house pre-k through eighth-grade students from the condemned Arthur A. Richards School, also east of Frederiksted. Richards was located in a tsunami zone, according to FEMA, which would not approve re-construction at that location. Williams Elementary was closed in 2015, along with Elena Christian Junior High, due to longstanding environmental and structural issues.

Plans for the school, which will house more than 1,000 students, making it the largest in the territory, include a swimming pool, making it the only public school to have a pool, according to a Coastal Zone Management Committee public hearing in January.

Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington said at that meeting that the project “will change the face of public education in the territory.”

Construction is expected to take place in three phases: Phase I — the utility building, gymnasium, commons area, and administration building; Phase II — grades pre-K, K5A, and K5B; and Phase III — grades 6-8, hardscape, landscape, and field.

Arthur A. Richards was the first to receive the official determination for replacement from FEMA after it was badly damaged in the hurricanes of September 2017, Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien said in May 2020.

According to Chaneel Callwood-Daniels, architect and Education’s director of new school construction, the cost for the Williams project will be around $159 million, plus $3 million for the demolition.

The next schools in line to be repaired or rebuilt could be St. Croix Central High, Charlotte Amalie High School, and Addelita Cancryn on St. Thomas, Education officials said in August. Every school in the territory will be repaired or replaced, they have said.

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