The St. Croix Federation of Teachers voted last week to work just to their contract in protest of Gov. John deJongh Jr.’s proposed two-year government salary freeze, with president James Howell saying $13 million exists to fund raises—a claim deJongh vigorously denies.
"We have a contract and we will live with that contract," said Howell Tuesday over the phone. "The government needs to live by that contract also."
As a result, union members will not bring work home over the weekend, which may delay report cards, said Howell.
The St. Thomas Federation of Teachers operates independently and has not voted to take a similar action, according to its president Vernelle Delagarde.
According to Howell, the union membership has identified a federal education grant that the government applied for last year. He provided a copy of part of the government’s application for $13.2 million in teacher-retention funding, dated Sept. 8, 2010.
According to Government House, deJongh met with union representatives Tuesday and told them the grant was a one-time federal allotment meant to stave off layoffs in public schools, which it did, and it has nothing to do with the postponement of teachers’ salary increases.
“With these federal funds, we were able to avert layoffs in the school district and keep the same number of teachers. But raises are not realistic or responsible in the midst of this financial crisis,” deJongh said, adding the money was already used in order to save jobs.
The $13.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education was the territory’s share of a $10 billion nationwide program intended to retain teaches and save positions from being eliminated, and cannot legally be diverted to other uses, according to deJongh.
“The money was never intended for salary increases, and is not available to provide them,” deJongh said.
The governor said he was "puzzled" by the union’s decision to work only to the contract, saying Education officials have not asked teachers to work past the regular workday to complete report cards. But he condemned the tactic.
“I know thousands of public employees are upset that they will not be getting pay increases that they expected. But our children’s success at school should not be used as a negotiating tactic,” deJongh said.
Reiterating concerns the administration has been raising since January’s State of the Territory address, deJongh said again that the territory risks financial collapse if it does not balance its books and close projected deficits of $75.1 million and $131.5 million for the next two years.
The two-year pay freeze is one of a number of austerity measures being proposed by the administration to address the shortfall. The governor recently submitted legislation to the V.I. Legislature that would add new telephone service fees, increase gross receipts taxes from four percent to five percent, increase the hotel room tax, institute three unpaid holidays, implement a partial hiring freeze, cut $17.1 million in the budget, and institute a $10 time-share rental fee.