University of the Virgin Islands President David Hall asked the V.I. Senate to find an extra $900,000 for the school’s proposed budget to provide scholarships to adults who wish to go back to school and pursue a higher education degree.
Hall issued his "call to action for education" Friday morning before the Senate Finance Committee, discussing the proposed budget for the 2014 fiscal year. The meeting was held in the Earl B. Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
Increasing adult educational levels was one of three issues Hall cited as posing challenges not only to the university but to the territory as a whole.
The UVI president presented statistics showing that the U.S. Virgin Islands lags far behind the national average for academic achievement, and those figures correlate directly to income and employment, he said.
"The percentage of individuals in the Virgin Islands who have attained a bachelor’s degree is only 19.2 percent, while other states range from 28.4 percent – Nevada – to 68.8 percent – the District of Columbia," he said. "The national average is 39.3 percent.”
“The reason this is a critical challenge is the fact that there is a direct link between the percent of college graduates in a state or territory and its economic development," Hall said.
At the same time, UVI enrollment is declining. That could be seen as a problem for the school, Hall said, but it’s really a challenge for the entire territory.
"If the Economic Development Commission and the Research and Technology Park are to be successful in attracting companies to the Virgin Islands, we must ensure that we have a trained workforce to address their needs. If we want economic prosperity for all citizens of the territory then we must educate, nourish and produce the next generation of business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs," he said.
The university continues to recruit among the territory’s high school graduates and a recent initiative provides free tuition for senior citizens. Hall called for a similar program to enable working and unemployed adults to further their education.
“An increase of $900,000 in our special programs budget would allow us to provide either 50 full scholarships to adults each year or 100 half scholarships. Over a four-year-period we would have provided incentives for between 200 and 400 adults to pursue their degrees."
"Education is one of the most effective tools for offsetting poverty. It is also the best stimulus for economic growth," the UVI president said.
Hall also urged the senators to consider increasing the university’s debt service budget to allow for construction of a multi-purpose facility on the St. Croix campus, a project he has promoted for several years.
The campus on St. Croix lacks the facilities that the St. Thomas campus provides students, one which would provide a wide range of student activities and possibly boost economic development.
The proposed 30,000-square-foot, energy efficient building would seat 2,500 people. The facility would offer:
– indoor, air-conditioned space for large events such as commencement, which is now a hostage to the weather, and "high quality" artistic events;
– a recreational athletic center with basketball and volleyball courts, a weight room, space for dancing, martial arts and aerobics, locker rooms, physical education faculty offices, student government offices and a conference room;
– and sporting events and performance activities.
The center would also increase desirability of the St. Croix campus for students and centralize the physical education programs in a single place. Doing that would open up space scattered across the campus now serving those uses.
Hall said the school’s debt service budget would need to be increased $600,000 to allow the school to borrow the money to build it.
"Though the economic decline and the absence of a fulltime recruiter are some of the major reasons for the decline in our enrollment on St. Croix, I also believe that the absence of an indoor sporting facility also plays a role," Hall said. "Students from the St. Croix Educational Complex and St. Croix Central High Schools … should not expect or be subjected to less" for enrolling in UVI on St. Croix after graduation.
Hall also asked the senators to increase the budget by an additional $700,000 to provide merit-based salary increases to stem the tide of faculty members who are leaving the school for better – and in many cases much better – paying positions elsewhere. With the exception of one $1,000 across-the-board increase, faculty and staff at the university have not received a pay raise since 2007, he noted.
"Though there may be other governmental agencies that are in the same situation, our problem is intensified because we have to attract and retain faculty and administrators who have numerous career options, and many of them are pursuing those options," Hall said. "If we want to ensure that the residents of this territory are receiving an excellent education, then we need to ensure that we have the best and brightest professionals supporting them through the process.”
He noted the cases of faculty members who have had to choose between staying at UVI at the same salary they received six years ago or moving to other institutions where they can make $20,000 or more above what they currently make.
UVI’s proposed budget, as submitted by the governor, calls for total operating expenses of $28.8 million. If all Hall’s requests are funded, the budget would rise to $33.1 million, which Hall noted is still less than the $34.5 million of the 2009 budget when he became UVI’s president.
The session was an informational hearing and the senators took no formal action.