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Woodson Shutdown Raising Ire and Questions About Education

Sept. 14, 2005 – The beginning of the new school year at a St. Croix junior high school has been lost to an emergency response over health and safety conditions. Classes have been called off at the John H. Woodson Junior High School by the Education Department while a contractor carries out environmental tests for mold.
Teachers refused to teach Monday in protest of building conditions at Woodson. A union official with the American Federation of Teachers Local 1826 said the problems at the school have been known for a long time. "For too long members have endured working in a sick school. This school is besieged by mold and mildew," Tyrone Molyneaux, Federation of Teachers president, said Monday.
On Tuesday, school principal Vaughn Hewitt said a contractor has been brought on campus to test for health and safety concerns. Teachers and students have reportedly complained of sore throats, ear aches, allergies, and asthma which they say are associated with conditions inside Woodson School.
Initially school officials said classes would resume by Monday, but it's anybody's guess, given the conditions at the school, whether they will or not. Concerned leaders of the school's Parents Teachers Association called for an emergency meeting to be held at the school Wednesday, but PTA President Andrea McIntosh says the meeting had to be moved to the St. Croix Educational Complex for Friday. St. Croix Sen. Juan Figueroa-Seville also tried to pay a call on Woodson School Wednesday. He said he found the entrance through the school kitchen locked.
"I did not have the opportunity to go into the school . . . but from hearing from teachers out there, it is said that many of the teachers are getting sick because of the unsafe and unsanitary conditions there," Figueroa-Serville said.
He said he also spoke to the parent of a student who was newly enrolled at the school and was told the child had come down with some of the same health complaints that have been expressed by the teachers.
McIntosh said it appeared officials of the Education Department never inspected the school before classes began in late August. Molyneaux said teachers tried to hold on to promises by the school administration that things would get better. "Members of St. Croix Federation of Teachers have tried to work with the Department of Education to remedy the situation. Superintendent (Terrence T.) Joseph and the school administration were allowed time and the benefit of the doubt that the problem would be fixed. Since the 2005 school year started, we have found ourselves in the same situation we've been in for the past three to four years," Molyneaux said earlier this week.
Legislative aides working with Sen. Neville James did get into the school with a video camera before the current crisis led to the school's closure.
James, who is off-island attending a program at the Council of State Governments, issued a statement Wednesday, detailing what was caught on
tape:
"The staffers took digital photos of several serious problems, including mold; graffiti dating back to 2001 covering entire walls; lockers in disrepair; inoperable toilets; exposed wiring; computers covered in mold; mold infested textbooks; frog infestation; rodent, pigeon and frog droppings on the gymnasium floor; a beehive growing over the gymnasium door; and discarded pieces of carpet placed to soak up water when it rains," the statement said.
James called on Gov. Charles W. Turnbull to "take command of his troops" in the executive branch. "This is a new school year," James wrote. "Governor, give the departments the tools they need to get the job done and mandate these problems be fixed before the children lose more school days," the lawmaker said.
Sen. Liston Davis, who served as Education commissioner during the Schneider administration, said in a release from his office Wednesday that current Education Commissioner Noreen Michael should be fired.
He said she was well aware of the conditions at Woodson – and at other of the territory's pubic schools – and instead of doing something about them, she instead "embarked on a public relations campaign incorrectly claiming that our public schools were in top shape to reopen for the new school year."

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