Legislation passed last year over Gov. John deJongh’s veto mandating an earlier start to to the school year starting this fall is delaying finalizing the school calendar as the Department of Education negotiates with unions and tries to figure out what the costs are and how to pay them.
Meanwhile the Senate may soon take up legislation to delay implementing the new starting dates by one year, and unions are ramping up their opposition to the change, making it difficult to finalize the calendar for students, parents and employees.
In May 2012, the V.I. Legislature passed a measure sponsored by Sen. Neville James mandating the school year shall begin no later than the second Tuesday after the second Monday in August and end no later than the first Friday in June, so long as the calendar includes at least 1,080 hours of instruction and the first semester ends by Dec. 23. The change must be implemented no later than the 2013-14 school year.
Gov. John deJongh Jr. vetoed the measure that June, calling it an unfunded mandate. DeJongh said in a letter accompanying several vetoed and several signed pieces of legislation that the bill would do nothing to help better prepare students, "while at the same time costing an estimated $3.1 million in the first year alone to effect it, which the Legislature has not funded and which the Department of Education cannot accommodate without such funds."
The Legislature overrode his veto and enacted the change into law later that month.
Since then, a number of senators were voted out in the 2012 general election. Sen. Donald Cole has authored a measure that would delay implementation of the law until the 2014-2015 school year, which may be acted upon during a legislative session scheduled for April 16. Until that has been finalized, the Education Department cannot finalize its school calendar, which is frustrating employees and parents, according to Ananta Pancham, director of public relations for the Department of Education.
"We understand it is April and people want to know when school will start. We completely understand that," Pancham said Friday. "But there are things that need to be fixed and things that need to be done first. Right now, since there has been no action by the Senate we have to implement the calendar, which we are trying to do while also adhering to our collective bargaining agreements," she said.
She took no position for or against the calendar change and said Education would follow the law whether it remained the same or was changed.
Education officials are meeting next week with union leaders, members of the executive branch and others to try to develop a consensus on moving forward, she said.
"The outcome of that meeting will determine if subsequent meetings are needed," she said.
Meanwhile, union officials are dead set against the change and want legislation to repeal it.
St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Rosa Soto-Thomas said Friday that the government has laid off teachers and implemented an eight-percent pay cut due to financial constraints, so it lacks the resources to pay for the change.
"Our members’ concern is if the government does not have the capacity to pay us now, why do they want to implement this legislation that they (also) do not have the capacity to pay for?" Soto-Thomas said.
The position of both the St. Croix and St. Thomas teachers unions is "to repeal the change," Soto-Thomas said.
"We are united on this. We are circulating a petition right now asking the Legislature to repeal the law," she said, adding that she was aware of Cole’s legislation and hoped it would be special ordered onto the agenda for Legislative session next week.