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Guy Benjamin Cafetorium Project Could Lose Block Grant Funding

Aug. 9, 2006 – A cadre of St. John residents Wednesday pleaded with senators not to allow the Department of Planning and Natural Resources to reprogram a $325,000 Community Development Block Grant made in 2000 for a combined cafeteria, gymnasium and community center at the Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay.
While the Education Department got the money, the Guy Benjamin School Parent Teacher's Organization applied for the grant. Several people speaking at the hearing were upset that the PTO was cut out of the process after applying for the funding.
"Give us the chance to show what we can do with it," a tearful Coral Bay Community Council President Sharon Coldren told the 10 senators who attended the Legislature's Committee of the Whole hearing on the coming year's block grants.
However, Block Grant Program Director Lawrence Joshua said that the money could not go directly to the PTO because it did not have nonprofit status. Additionally, he said the PTO does not own the school. He said that for both reasons, the Education Department received the funding.
Guy Benjamin School teacher Patrice Harley outlined the reasons why the school needs what is usually referred to as a cafetorium. She said the students have to eat lunch on a porch located between two of the school's buildings.
And she said that there is nowhere to hold programs except out in the open at the bleachers adjacent to the basketball court.
PTO president Lorelei Monsanto said the PTO could purchase a prefabricated building with the $325,000 to use as the cafetorium.
Joshua and several testifiers claimed the Education Department was the bottleneck. No one from the Education Department attended the hearing.
Joshua also said that a plan to move the school as part of the land swap deal now being negotiated between the Interior Department and the local government, coupled with problems with the architect, contributed to the delay in the cafetorium project.
He said the school can reapply for the money when the Education Department decides to go forward with the project.
Sen. Craig Barshinger asked why the money could not be used for other St. John projects, but Joshua said that it was considered construction money rather than program money. Joshua said the only organization that applied for construction funding, the St. John School of the Arts, did not qualify because its programs were not geared toward low- and moderate-income residents.
Joshua said after the hearing that the money will not have to be returned to the federal government if it is not used on the Guy Benjamin School project, but that the U.S. Housing and Urban Development agency that funds the block grants is looking closely at money that does not get spent in a timely manner. Joshua said this could have a long-term impact on the program.
Joshua said that underfunding of projects is the biggest obstacle to their completion.
This happens because the money from the Block Grant program falls far short of the requests. Joshua said this year, the amount totals $1.9 million. He said that after administrative costs, about $1.5 million is left for projects. The money is equally split between the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix districts.
Joshua said that on St. John alone, the department received six requests totaling $1 million.
The senators also heard representatives from two of the three St. John organizations that were successful in convincing the Block Grant office to fund their programs.
VIPD Officer Steven Payne, who runs the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Program on both St. Thomas and St. John, saw his request slashed from $185,000 to $10,000. The program provides a music program for at-risk students.
"I'll sit down with the board and see what is the best way to spend the $10,000," he said.
Payne received a round of applause from the senators and the 17 people in the audience for his efforts in working with the territory's youth.
Clarence Scipio, who heads the Human Services Department's senior citizen program at St. Ursula's multipurpose center, had asked for $35,000 for a computer learning program aimed at youths, adults and seniors. DPNR reduced the funding to $15,000.
No one came to testify from the V.I. Resource Center for the Disabled, which runs an after-school program at Julius E. Sprauve School. Joshua said the agency had asked for $19,400, but Planning proposed $8,000.
The senators also heard from Harriet Williams of the Helping Children Work, an after-school program at Grove Place, St. Croix. Funding is set at $15,000 for the program and $180,000 for a new building. Williams attended the St. John hearing because she was in St. Thomas on a field trip with St. Croix youth.
Senate President Lorraine Berry said that the senators will make their decision on how much to allocate to each block grant applicant when it meets Aug. 22.
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