Fifth and last in a series of profiles of freshman senators in the 25th Legislature
Feb. 23, 2003 – Sen. Luther Renee is a thoughtful man, a scholar. As he talks, he switches from contemplative, almost somber demeanor to lively animated persona, depending on the subject at hand.
The 53-year-old St. Croix senator chairs the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Committee. When he discusses his island's economic development, he is all business. When he touches on education, he lights up.
Which is not to say he feels dour about St. Croix's development; he does not. In fact, he espouses some strong and original-sounding approaches to getting the island's economy growing long term. However, he recognizes it's a long road ahead.
In the early morning light of his St. Thomas office, Renee appears expectant, as fresh as his brand-new and still bare office. Lacking the patina — and the callouses — of some of his incumbent colleagues, the tall, bespectacled freshman lawmaker sits erect in the oversize office chair, awaiting inquiry to see where the interview will lead. It leads to education, and that proves to be the key.
The onetime teacher's eyes light up as he speaks of his "first love." But one must go farther back in time, to the young Renee in his native St. Lucia, where he was raised by his great aunts and uncles after his parents left the island. "We were poor," he says, but not in the important things. He credits his great aunt Lidy Renee with imparting values to him. "She raised me as if I were her own," he says.
He was born in the village of Laborie, "about 100 yards from the ocean." Growing up in the community of about 4,000 residents, he watched the local fishermen, observing that they needed organization, they needed some help in marketing their catch.
"I was lucky enough to be educated," he says, an opportunity not afforded all in his little village, "and I was duty-bound to return to St. Lucia," which he did after attending the University of the West Indies St. Augustine campus in Trinidad. He became the chair of his village council, and two of the first things he did were to organize a fishermen's cooperative and regular garbage truck service. This spirit of community empowerment directs his ideas about St. Croix's economy today.
After marrying in St. Lucia, Renee's bride wanted to emigrate to St. Croix. Renee was reluctant to leave his homeland but agreed to stay on St. Croix for two years if he could work on his graduate degree and get his green card. The two years have now stretched to 23.
"As I began to feel at home on St. Croix," he recalls, "I noticed the cultural mix on the island — there were so many groups, including a lot of people from St. Lucia." He was one of the founding members of the St. Lucia Action Circle and, as would naturally follow, he organized the St. Lucia Creole Dancers. "I wanted to see some quadrille dancing here," he says, adding, "I love to dance."
Senate offers a wider way of teaching
Renee has left his mark on St. Croix's educational community. He taught mathematics and social sciences at Good Hope School until he became its Middle School director in 1986. "I moonlighted at the University of the Virgin Islands managing the Office of Academic Affairs at night," he says. In 1998, he went to UVI full time, as director of admissions and academic services.
After losing in the 2000 senatorial race, Renee made up for lost time in the 2002 election, finishing an impressive second in the St. Croix district with 6,401 votes, just 58 votes fewer than the first-place finisher, incumbent Sen. Douglas Canton.
Renee says his platform last fall was the same as in 2000 — long-term economic growth for St. Croix — but he concedes he may have worked harder to get it across this time. He also ran this time as part of the official Democratic Party team, which may have influenced some voters.
How did his educational ambition channel its way into the political field? Warming to the occasion, spreads his hands, leaning back in his chair. "I love to teach," he says, smiling. "Enlightening people is my first love. Now I can have a wider voice, a wider audience."
He will focus in these next two years on broadening what he feels he can do. "I really think I can help," he says, emphasizing his dedication to affecting the lives, the futures of others.
"There is no more rewarding experience than when you can change somebody's life," Renee says. He gives an example: "I found a sixth grade student who was about to be expelled. I became his advocate. He lacked a father figure, and he had other issues." With a big grin, he reports that the young man is now continuing his studies in the States and that they still keep in touch. "I'll never forget his smile," he says of the youngster he helped.
Then the former teacher turns suddenly serious. His speech is precise, his manner straightforward: "I was at an Education meeting last week, and I had to take issue with what some people said — that 99 percent of the students' problems were attributable to their parents." After a pause, he continues. "That's not so. Teachers can teach and make that child succeed. Teachers should teach," he stresses.
Renee has definite ideas about education reform. He disapproves of the pre-college SAT tests. "They don't accurately reflect our students' capabilities," he says. The SAT testing has Virgin Island students at a cultural disadvantage, he says, and the students are not prepared to test well. "We need a test geared to V.I. students. It should be sufficient to enter UVI, or to be accepted at any institution," he says.
He is a firm advocate of site-based management of schools. "We have to give power to school principals, authority over their schools," he says. "The key is to let the principals run the schools and to make them accountable. It works. I've seen it work in the States." He adds: ''We don't seem to want to empower people. We need them to function at a level where they are most effective."
Renee shakes his head contemplating the loss of accreditation which occurred last year at the three of the territory's four public high schools that were accredited. "We need site-based management," he repeats, echoing other senators and Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, who has that mandate as a requirement for regaining accreditation for the schools.
Barbados is a model; St. Thomas is not
Renee also has definite ideas about St. Croix's economy, and they do not include competing with St. Thomas. He lauds Barbados, which he says has probably the best economy and highest literacy rate, 90 percent, in the Caribbean. "Look what they have done," he says. They have a strong educational basis; they encourage event tourism, sports tourism; and they have the lowest migration rate of any Caribbean island."
His ideas for St. Croix are long term. "We have such a cultural mix here," he says. "We need to create our own niche, not compete with St. Thomas." He envisions a five-to 10-year plan incorporating a "different touch, something that will make people look at us and want to come here."
A start in that direction is cultivation, Renee says, specifically the fishing industry. Harking back to his early efforts in organizing the fishermen in his little village, he sees a concerted marketing effort in this regard for St. Croix. Commercial fishing "could be a $20-million-a-year business if sold in the domestic market," he says. "We have neglected the fishing industry. The tuna could be sold to sushi restaurants off island. We need education in marketing."
And sports and cultural-event tourism need to be promoted, he says.
Reflecting on the success of the St. Lucia cultural dancers, he stresses: "St. Croix has such a mix of cultures. We should be No. 1 in the Caribbean promoting dances, games, music, cultural events."
St. Croix the new Sun City?
A novel part of his long-term plan is the developing of a sizable retirement community. Why would people want to retire on St. Croix when the cost of living is more affordable on the mainland?
"The same reasons they go to Florida — but it could be better here if we had adequate health care," he says, adding with a smile, "There are rich retirees, you know."
Of course, there is the monumental problem of improving the territory's health care first establishing the planned cardiac care center on St. Croix and the cancer center on St. Thomas, among other things but this is a long-term plan.
Although a freshman senator, Renee is not a newcomer to public service. He has sat since 1998 on the Public Services Commission and has been an active member. It was he who made the motion that Innovative Telephone pay up the past-due $400,000 in assessments that it owed the PSC last August, at a time when the agency was having trouble making ends meet for lack of Innovative's payments. Although his motion was successful, the PSC has collected only a part of the company's past-due debt.
Renee still has a seat on the PSC, but now it is as one of two ex-officio, non-voting members from the Legislature, appointed by the Senate president. He and the other senator on the commission, fellow freshman Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, are in Washington, D.C., this week attending the winter meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utilities Commissioners.
Renee holds a bachelor's degree in economics from UVI-Trinidad and a master's in educational leadership from the University of Miami. "I was fortunate," he says of the latter degree. "I was able to do that in summer sessions the university held on St. Croix." He is currently working on his doctorate in the economics of education at Miami.
Looking back on his career as an educator, Renee says: "I still have to say my greatest satisfaction is when I know I have helped somebody learn."
He will be looking for more of that satisfaction over the next two years as he seeks to educate St. Croix about his ideas on empowerment, motivating fishermen and marking their product.
And then there is the task of improving health care. "It's a long-range program," he reiterates. "If we can develop top-notch health care, there's no reason we can't compete with Florida for the retiree market."
It is easy to imagine Renee in the classroom with his precise speech and non-wavering attention to the subject at hand, backed by determination. It is not hard to imagine him on the Senate floor with the same qualities.
Renee is married to the former Cecile Serrano. He has four daughters ranging from 11 to 26 years of age. The three older girls have professional careers in the States; the youngest is a student at St. Patrick's School in Frederiksted.
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