Oct. 4, 2002 – As far as educators at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School are concerned, the demonstration by a group of students on Thursday protesting physical conditions at the facility was an object lesson in free speech rights.
The Cancryn students were protesting hot classrooms — a day after physical education teachers at Charlotte Amalie High School called in sick in what was reportedly a protest of heat in their gymnasium.
The junior high students also were protesting the fact that they don't even have a gymnasium — and complaining that their athletic field is inadequate and that they are plagued by pigeons that congregate at an open area of the school roof and foul the air with their droppings.
On Wednesday, the Education Department distributed a release in which Cancryn Principal Yvonne Pilgrim stated: "The students will demonstrate their right to free speech, petition and assembly as outlined in the Bill of Rights through the application of their current study in U.S. history to real-life situations."
It may or may not have been a coincidence that the students' protest took place on the day that a government inspection team was on the school grounds checking up on maintenance work done during the summer. Keith Richards, the governor's special assistant for capital improvement projects, was among those present for the inspection.
The government allocated $140,000 for a number of summer maintenance projects at the school over the summer, including repairs to windows, doors, tiles, roofs, bathroom floors, cisterns and air conditioners, along with painting.
Last May, legislators were told that the school has more than 900 students but no place to hold an assembly for more than 400. They also learned that, with no gym, Cancryn physical education activities are held outdoors in a dirt cricket field west of the school where students experience heat exhaustion, dehydration and aggravations due to allergies and asthma. If the weather is inclement, the senators were told, the students get no p-e activities at all.
Also visiting the school on Thursday was Sen. Carlton Dowe. He said the Senate had approved a quarter-million dollar appropriation allocated by the Public Finance Authority for Cancryn. "It's up to the Department of Education to decide what they're going to do" with the money, he said.
According to Richards, however, while he believes the money is sitting in the PFA, it has already been spent and is awaiting distribution to contractors for the summer maintenance work. "The contractors haven't been paid completely," he said. "The $250,000 may be held to reimburse on projects that have already been done and money that's already been spent."
Capital projects that were needed at Cancryn included connecting the school's water line to a new water system, upgrading the electrical system, and making improvements to the security system, he said..
The good news is that the pigeon problem is already being addressed, with some success reported in chasing off the birds. But relieving the heat in the classrooms will require a long-term effort, Richards said. He told Cancryn administrators that converting to school-wide air conditioning would take planning, funding and an electrical upgrade to support the system.
If authorities want to address the youngsters' complaints about conditions at the school, he said, the work must be contracted on a competitive bidding process. The Senate will have to appropriate money for the work, he said, or Education officials will have to find the funds from within their resources.
Richards also said the problem of excessive heat in the Charlotte Amalie High School gym could have been solved as part of the summer school maintenance program, but that it did not come to the attention of decision makers in time to be included on the project list. "The fans and the ventilation in the gym was something that had to be done," he said.
But, he added, corrective action is under way in the CAHS case. The capital improvements office was expecting to hear from three contractors on Friday in response to a "scope of work" description put together for the high school gym last week. If funds are available, the work can proceed quickly, he said; but if not, it will have to wait until the resources are in place.
Richards and Dowe said they would like to see permanent solutions at both schools. Building a new CAHS gym is on the To Do list at Government House, Richards said, and funding is expected to come from an upcoming bond issue. But it will take a long time for the project to proceed from design to reality, he said.
Dowe said he believes the best solution for Cancryn would be to build a whole new junior high school for central and western St. Thomas. But he said it is more likely that a gymnasium and a cafeteria will be built for the existing school — projects for which the Legislature earlier approved funding.
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