Superior Court Judge James Carroll III gave parents of students at Evelyn Marcelli Elementary a continuance Thursday so they could find a lawyer to argue their case against closing the school.
In May the Department of Education had announced its decision to close the school for the upcoming year, and since then, parents and staff have continued to show their opposition. Along with filing a motion for a temporary restraining order with the court, they have staged protests on St. Thomas and fundraised on the weekends to cover the legal fees.
The temporary restraining order was denied, but Carroll did schedule an Aug. 4 hearing after the parents filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to prevent officials from closing the school. The hearing was continued after Carroll advised the parents to find a lawyer instead of representing themselves.
Coming back into court on Thursday, Marcelli parent Simeon Thompson said the group has been “aggressively searching” but has been turned down by at least four attorneys who have said the case was a conflict of interest. The “back-up plan” was for the parents to represent themselves, but Thompson said the case would be better argued by a lawyer and asked for more time to find one.
“The eight or nine points the government has given as reasons for closing the school, we think those things could be remedied if they were investigated here,” he said.
V.I. Assistant Attorney General Carol Thomas-Jacobs said the government opposed continuing the hearing and asked that it either go forward as planned, or that the case be dismissed. She said the government had prepared its argument and brought two witnesses, St. Thomas-St. John District Insular Superintendent Janette Smith-Barry and Deputy Superintendent Joseph Sibilly, to testify. Coming back another day would waste more time, money and resources, she said.
Thomas-Jacobs said if the hearing was not going to happen Thursday, then the case should be dismissed since the parents had “clearly not set forth any basis for relief whatsoever.”
At a public meeting in May and in a release this month, Education officials said the decision to close the school was made after a “careful vetting” of the issue and because of factors such as low enrollment numbers, structural problems at the school, budget issues, a shortage of specialized teachers and a nurse, and a lack of physical education or play areas for the students at the school.
On Thursday, Thomas-Jacobs also said that the department has the power to decide if a school should be closed, and to challenge that would be to “second guess the department in decision making, a decision that is theirs to make.”
Carroll said the issues in the case were complex, and the Marcelli parents could be “harmed substantially” if they tried to argue the case without a lawyer. He also said that the government had not filed its motion to dismiss the case until Aug. 24, which would give the parents another 21 days to respond.
“So this matter has not even been fully briefed,” Carroll said. Since only two of the parents had been served so far, Carroll also ordered the government to separately serve all other parties that had signed on as defendants.
Carroll said that he was granting the parents a final continuance, and that the case will proceed at 2 p.m. Sept. 28.
After the hearing, Thompson said the parents and staff have already come up with ideas that would solve the department’s concerns about structural problems and parking.
“The principal asked the government to use a section of land located behind the school that is owned by the government, but that was denied,” Thompson said. “Another section of land not too far from the school that is also owned by the government was also asked to be used as a parking lot. The property has an abandoned house on the premises, and we asked the government to bulldoze it, but that was also denied.”
Thompson also described Marcelli as a “place of academic excellence,” and said that while schools across the nation are being shut down because they are underperforming, Marcelli has met adequate yearly progress standards for the past three years.
The new hearing is scheduled after the opening of school on Aug. 31. Education officials have said that most of the Marcelli students have already been placed in other schools.