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SCHOOL CONCERNS GET EMPATHY, IF NOT ANSWERS

March 6, 2002 – It might have seemed that educators should be leaping for joy after the Senate Education Committee reviewed eight bills appropriating funds earmarked for repairs, materials and security measures at the territory's schools. But review of the measures did not lessen their requests Wednesday for executive branch action.
Act No. 6427 alone appropriated more than $5 million to the Education Department from the General Fund, the Capital Improvement Fund and the Industrial Development Fund. The total included $120,000 for high school athletes to attend the Pennsylvania Relays and $1 million to implement the Virgin Islands Teacher Recruitment and Training Act passed by the Legislature year.
But appropriation by the legislative branch is one thing; approval by the Office of Management and Budget is another. And until OMB says so, no funds are released.
The Senate committee's hearing Wednesday on St. Croix was called to ascertain the status of appropriations for various Education projects and to review school staffing needs, especially teacher vacancies at the high school level. Discussion centered on the Education Department's need for school equipment and facilities.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, the committee chair, challenged Gov. Charles W. Turnbull's often-professed commitment to the territory's youth as his top priority. "I want you to tell the governor we mean business," Jn Baptiste told Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, as Mills fielded questions on OMB's selectivity in funding legislative appropriations.
Superintendents, principals, PTA officers and union representatives testified about matters that they said curtail their ability to provide a safe and constructive educational environment for the territory's children and support staff. Three major areas of concern cited by the educators were school security, teacher recruitment and retention, and securing a continuous flow of revenue to fund the department's operational needs.
Jeanette Smith-Barry, Charlotte Amalie High School principal, said she has had to postpone classes because teaching positions could not be filled at the beginning of the school year or the spring semester. However, she told the Senators, "No senior is left without a class which is required for graduation," adding that her first concern in filling vacancies is to meet the needs of graduating seniors.
Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds said her greatest concern is not filling vacancies, but filling them with individuals who possess the credentials required by the teaching profession. "There are people interested in teaching, but they don't have the required background and training," she said. "We need to be careful."
Faced with growing enrollments and aging structures, all of the administrators testifying stressed the need for additional support staff. "CAHS is beginning to show signs of wear and tear, especially the plumbing," one said. The facility commonly referred to as High School was built in 1955 and currently serves a population of more than 1,700 students.
The educators toted up their requests like merchants ordering stock: "We need six monitors, three secretaries, two paraprofessionals, three cooks and two maintenance workers," correspondence from a PTA group said.
Discussion was heated about funding security measures for Central High School, which has suffered repeated structural damage over the last 10 years — decay, flooding, hurricane battering — and recently became the playing field for idle-hands and arsonists.
Central Principal Kent Moorehead said his needs have changed from when the 2002 Fiscal Year budget was developed. He told the committee he needs six monitors and "innovative security" for the 42-acre property. "We have not had a maintenance engineer for the last five to six years," he said as he pressed Mills to review security plans submitted to the committee.
For teacher vacancies at St. Croix Educational Complex, Principal Kurt Vialet said, "We were able to interview and select candidates last summer," three months before the start of the school year. But he said the department has not been able to find applicants for his vacancies, which are mainly in math and science fields. The Educational Complex includes not only St. Croix's second public high school but also a vocational school and a magnet program, an advanced curriculum program to ready students for medical, marine and engineering careers.
His voice reflecting frustration, Vialet cited the high teacher turnover rate at his school. "Twelve teachers have resigned at the end of the school year over the past three years," he said.
Vialet proposed that a stipend of $3,000 or $4,000 be offered for advances technology professionals, similar to incentives offered to special education instructors. "I have lost my science staff to Hovensa and Bechtel," a subcontractor at the refinery, he said, adding that salaries for engineers begin at $30,000 compared to those for starting teachers of $20,000.
"Those disciplines are very demanding," Jn Baptiste agreed. "You will not pay an engineer the same salary as someone in liberal arts."
Mills told the senators he is supportive of the Education Department, but he disagrees with "extreme" security plans calling for metal detectors, mounted surveillance cameras and strong-arm police tactics to maintain order within the schools. "We now have to balance all needs with the same resources," he said, citing competing court orders and health issues. His role, he said, is to apply resources to critical needs while curtailing over-appropriations.
Baptiste rejected that as an excuse. Telling Mills there is no shortage of creativity in government, he said that additional funding for the schools "can be handled through bond issues." He also urged OMB to seek assistance from federal sources, including the Environmental Protection Agency. "Unless we support our education system, we all are contributors to the decadence of this community," he said.
Sen. Carlton Dowe said he is proposing two measures to increase the territory's teacher pool. One is to have 75 percent of the educational assistance financial contributions from Economic Development Agency beneficiaries go into a special fund to for scholarships and public school programs. The other is for the government to provide 50 percent tuition assistance to UVI students majoring in math or science who agree to teach in the territory's schools.

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