July 15, 2005 — After weeks of postponing its session, the Committee on the Whole met Friday to receive testimony on the state of the compliance agreement between the V.I. Department of Education (VIDE) and the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE), and the attempts made to procure the services of a third-party fiduciary to help manage VIDE's operations.
The compliance agreement was entered into by the two parties on September 2002after the territory was designated a "high-risk" guarantee as a result of serious and recurring deficiencies of various federally funded programs under VIDE.
Other pertinent issues addressed in the agreement were program planning, design and evaluation; financial management; human capital; and property management and procurement. The agreement noted that if VIDE does not meet the standards outlined in the agreement by Sept. 2005, the U.S. Department of Education will cut all federal funding for education purposes.
Program Planning and Evaluation
Speaking on issues of accreditation for schools in St. Croix, Mary Moorehead, vice president of PTA for Central High School, said that challenges were rising due to a lack of federal funding.
"We've performed at the very bottom of standardized test exams. Students at UVI have had to register for skills classes, and our honors students have had to apply to remedial classes," Moorehead said. "These issues are hindering our accreditation, and there is a lack of serious attention paid to them."
Moorehead stated that Central High School was also in need of an architectural engineer for capital projects and required a financial officer to ensure that federal money was managed properly.
"In addition, we are in need of proper leadership someone who has the authority to make sure all these things can happen."
Moorehead said that St. Croix Superintendent Terrence Joseph has had no control over any problems posed in regard to the high school, and provides a prime example of the need for department restructuring.
"No one has the authority for anything," Moorehead said, to the agreement of Senate committee members.
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry discussed the need for a change in the "authoritative hierarchy" of the department and called for a general decentralization of government.
In need of a new financial management system to keep track of federal funding, Office of Budget and Management Director Ira Mills said that the compliance agreement task force is in the process of securing funding for a new Enterprise Resource Planning System (ERP).
"We have bid on a vendor to provide a new ERP, and now we're reviewing the bid proposals that have come in," Bernice Turnbull, Commissioner of Finance, said.
Mills added that the implementation of a an ERP should eliminate the need for a third-party fiduciary, an official acting on behalf of the USDOE to oversee education operations in the territory. A third-party fiduciary is one of the mandates within the compliance agreement, set up because VIDE has been held accountable for significant lapses in funds.
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville, in order to shed light on the matter, provided documentation which showed that VIDE may be responsible for the loss of approximately $15 million in federal grant aid. "This balance is current," Figueroa-Serville, said. "These are federal documents issued as of May 5."
Education Commissioner Noreen Michaels said that in some instances, these were old grantsfrom 1996-1998which have been returned to the federal government.
"Additionally, there are times when these grants are issued to us only a few days before they have expired," Michaels said. "How are we supposed to spend them all if we don't have enough time?"
Michaels said that she has made the federal authorities aware of such issues, but her concerns have not been acknowledged. "These are still being held against us as lapses in funding," Michaels added.
According to Mills, the new ERP, which was supposed to have been completed in September of this year, is something that takes more than three years to establish.
"We know this, the federal government knows this but still they've asked us to accomplish this task. There was no alternative otherwise, we would lose our federal funding," Mills said.
Mills told senators that the territory is the only U.S. governance that has been subjected to such standards, even though other territories, like Puerto Rico, are experiencing problems within their education departments.
"While the requirement from USDOE that the V.I. government select a third-party fiduciary acceptable to USDOE appears to be straightforward, when taken at face value, no such fiduciary arrangement of implementation guidelines, or implementations of this magnitude exist within the USDOE," Mills said.
Mills added that many education officials have been jailed in Puerto Rico for money mismanagement, but the government has not been asked to accommodate a third-party fiduciary.
"I'm only asking that they treat us equally just as they would all their other governances," Mills said.
Michaels was also questioned by Sen. Liston Davis on funding given to the department by the Public Finance Authority in order to purchase textbooks for the territory's public high schools.
"The textbooks have been ordered, but they haven't arrived as yet," Michaels said.
In 2004, the Education Department was allocated $1 million for textbooks through the PFA as a result of a dividend declared by the West Indian Company, Ltd.
Michaels said that the department had to use other funding sources for the purchase, as the textbook order exceeded the amount given by the PFA.
Testimony given by Judy M. Gomez, chairman of the Board of Education, related a five-year strategic plan for teacher certification, featuring goals conducive to the increase in qualified teachers for the territory's school districts.
"We plan to develop and implement a comprehensive professional certification program that will facilitate professional development, improve performance, and ensure qualification of all professional staff by 2007," Gomez said.
Gomez added that the board also plans to establish a new staffing formula for teachers and related service personnel to meet the needs of V.I. public schools.
"It is important to note that after entering into the compliance agreement in 2002, the board continued its overhaul of the certification process and attempted to align its requirements with the expectations and requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act that teachers be highly qualified in the content areas in what they teach."
While Gomez said that the board has achieved "varying levels of success with this goal, Tregenza Roach, the board's executive director, feels otherwise.
"Under the strategic plan, we have to certify 20 percent of the uncertified teaching staff per year approximately 280 teachers per year," Roach said. "But realistically, 100-percent teacher certification is an unreachable goal in our second and third years of the strategic plan, we haven't been able to do that."
Roach said that only 67 teachers were certified this yearthe third year of the strategic plan.
"We're going toward alternative routes of certification now," Roach said, mentioning a course offered by teachers at the University of the Virgin Islands in order to aid with requirements in student teaching. "This will allow for the training that they need without them having to leave the classrooms during the day," Gomez said.
As teacher retention is also a valid concern of the board, Gomez indicated that such a measure was necessary to maintain the longevity of school staff. "Recently, our certification committee a
lso adopted an alternative approach to the student teaching requirement for teachers hired before 1997," Gomez added. The board will meet July 16 to consider these alternatives.
Property Management and Procurement
While Property and Procurement Commissioner Marc Biggs said that everything looked well from his end, controversy was created by Sen. Liston Davis regarding lost textbooks for the St. Croix Educational Complex's Vocational School.
Davis circulated a document during Friday's hearing providing the testimony of a librarian working at the Complex in 2004. The librarian, who was conducting an inventory of all the books within Vocational library, noticed that a large number of books were missing from an order placed through the UVI bookstore in Aug. 2000.
"Only 123 books were located, and 1,902 booksvalued at more than $72,688were missing. She was told that three trucks delivered the books on the educational section of the Educational Complex [instead of the vocational side], and no one can tell what happened to them after," Davis read.
Davis said that rumors had circulated that the books were damaged in a flood, but that there was no paperwork to prove that this was so.
Biggs, who is responsible for these inventories under the compliance agreement, said that the delivery was easy to keep track of, and the inventory was easy to executebut accountability was a major problem. "There is difficulty in identifying where the location of that inventory is," Biggs said.
In order to address some of the concerns presented at today's hearing, Sen. Louis P. Hill suggested that Gov. Charles W. Turnbull visit USDOE officials in Washington, D.C., in order to tell them that certain measures contained within the agreement were unfair.
Berry, who said that Turnbull would be off island until next week, suggested writing a letter to U.S. Undersecretary of Education Edward McPherson, describing concerns, and offering full Legislative support to VIDE.
"We are here to help you," Berry said to Michaels at the end of Friday's hearing. "But you're accountable, too, and things have got to change."
Sens. present at Friday were Berry, Davis, Figueroa-Serville, Hill, Nelson, Roosevelt David, Neville James, Ronald Russell, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn Michael-Malone, and Pedro Encarnacion.
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