The territory’s public school system continues to suffer beneath the weight of chronic challenges ahead of the 2019-2020 school year, with a crumbling infrastructure and a persistent shortage of teachers topping the list, Department of Education officials told lawmakers on Thursday.
Education officials, led by Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin, defended the department’s Fiscal Year 2020 budget before the Senate Finance Committee at the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Building on St. Thomas.
“Our schools were in a continuous state of deterioration, crumbling under the weight of $70 million of deferred maintenance before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit and compounded the needs,” said Dionne Wells-Hedrington, chief operating officer for the department.
According to Wells-Hedrington, the average age of buildings in the public school system is roughly 50 years, with many built 70 years ago and even one building built in the 1800s. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, about $20 million is required annually to maintain the school system’s sprawling physical plant, comprised of 45 schools and support facilities, or nearly 3 million sq. ft. of buildings. To date, a total of $116.5 million in federal funds has been obligated for emergency and temporary repair work, Wells-Hedrington said.
“With only $300,000 per district allotted for maintenance in Fiscal Year 2019, the challenges in meeting daily operational requirements were daunting,” Wells-Hedrington said.
“Fortunately, the FY 2020 budget includes $3.6 million for maintenance which VIDE will use for routine maintenance and emergency repairs,” she added.
The V.I. National Guard has volunteered to help with the maintenance work, and the department is calling on volunteers or partner organizations who want to help in the repair and maintenance process, Wells-Hedrington said.
This summer, the department will spend up to $250,000 on maintenance work focused on the K-8 schools on St. Croix. On St. Thomas, the Aviation Building and the Building B Annex at Charlotte Amalie High School are also being retrofitted to help make up for the classrooms lost due to the closure of Building B. Classrooms at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School are also being prepared to receive additional sixth-grade students who would have attended Yvonne E. Milliner-Bowsky Elementary or Joseph A. Gomez Elementary schools.
Berry-Benjamin said the department is suffering from staffing shortages impacting school districts across the territory, with 94 teaching vacancies as of June 21. Of that number, 50 vacancies are in the St. Thomas-St. John District while 44 are in the St. Croix District. Vocational education, art, special education and social studies top the list of areas needing the most teachers.
According to Berry-Benjamin, a total of 107 teachers left the department during the 2018-2019 school year and another 15 have submitted their notices to separate from the school system. While teacher shortage is a national trend, many teachers who left the department indicated personal or economic reasons for leaving. Other school districts, she said, also entice teachers with relocation reimbursements, competitive starting salaries and signing bonuses at a level that the department cannot match.
The Department of Education serves roughly 10,718 students almost equally distributed between the St. Croix and St. Thomas-St. John districts, according to its 2018-2019 school year data. This total is 150 students less than the 2017-2018 school year. Of the 701 students enrolled in the 12th-grade at the beginning of the current school year, only 660 graduated in June, 353 in the St. Thomas-St. John District and 307 in the St. Croix District.
Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, questioned why the shortage continues even in the wake of the schools consolidation and a decline in enrollment.
“When we did the consolidations, most of our consolidations filled our elementary vacancies. Most of our separations continued to occur in the content area and the specialized areas. For example, English, physical education and math continue to be a challenge and that’s where most of our individuals have now started to separate from,” said Nicole Jacobs, director of human resources.
To mitigate the shortage, the territory uses its substitute pool, Benjamin-Berry said, with a total of 53 individuals participating in the substitute pool territory-wide. The department’s year-round recruiting efforts are also bearing fruit, she said, with the territory set to welcome 29 new teachers for the upcoming school year: 18 on St. Thomas and St. John, and 11 on St. Croix.
The Education Department is also working on making sure its teaching staff is fully certified.
“Presently, the [department] and the Virgin Islands Board of Education have begun conversations to address alternative routes to the process of certification,” she said. “Our end goal is to ensure that our teachers meet full certification timely (sic).”
With a continuing need to fill school nurse positions, the department also met with the V.I. Board of Nurse Licensure to address its shortage of nurses, Benjamin-Berry said, and are communicating with the Orange County School District to discuss measures they took to address their nursing shortages, according to Benjamin-Berry.
Lawmakers also pressed Education officials on what they considered a lack of strategy for the St. Croix district’s 15 new school buses. Vialet and Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory (D-STT) urged education officials to make sure they have a plan before the scheduled talks with the company the department aims to tap to operate the buses.
“I’m completely confused as to why we would purchase buses in the Department of Education and we don’t have a clear plan and structure as how we’re going to be utilizing those buses and whether or not we are establishing a school-busing authority,” Frett-Gregory said.
For Fiscal Year 2020, the Department of Education is requesting $179.8 million from the General Fund. Of that amount, roughly $103.4 million would go toward personnel services, with some $45.3 million in fringe benefits. The third highest spending category is other charges and services, which accounts for almost $21 million in projected spending, while utilities and supplies comprise $5.9 million and $4 million respectively.
The total budget recommendation for the Department of Education is 4 percent, or $7.5 million, higher than the previous fiscal year’s budget. Of that amount, $1.6 million is allocated for school maintenance and repair, while another $2.3 million is earmarked for specific programs and grants normally funded under the miscellaneous section of the executive budget.
Arah Lockhart also led a team of V.I. Board of Education officers Thursday in defending the agency’s $3 million budget request for Fiscal Year 2020. Of that amount, roughly $1.76 million would go toward operation expenses and another $1.3 million will fund scholarships and grants under the miscellaneous section of the executive budget.
Of the $1.76 million in operational expenses, roughly $814,000 and $343,000 would go toward personnel and fringe benefits respectively for 17 positions territory-wide. Other services and charges comprise another $466,000 in expenses while utilities account for $45,000 for the next fiscal year.
The Board of Education, which has the responsibility to certify teachers, counselors and administrators in the Department of Education, has certified 113 professionals on St. Thomas and St. John, and 110 on St. Croix, according to Lockhart. The agency has also distributed roughly $1.3 million in scholarship funds for the 2019 scholarship cycle, she said.
Career and Technical Education Board Treasurer Ronnie Jones also presented the board’s $509,250 budget on behalf of Board Chairman Ilene Gardner. Of the total budget request, roughly $226,000 and $95,000 would fund personnel and fringe benefits respectively.
The Career and Technical Education Board, which is responsible for the administration of all career and technical education programs in the territory’s schools, is still functioning with only three of the nine mandated board members. Recommendations of potential new board members have been submitted to Gov. Albert Bryan for consideration, Jones said.
When asked why the V.I. Board of Education and the Career and Technical Education Board do not simply merge into one entity given the difficulty in finding board members, Jones said the move might have federal ramifications. Career and Technical Education Boards are formed under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and merging with another state agency might pose problems with establishing the Career and Technical Education Board’s existence.
Present at Thursday’s Finance Committee hearing were Sens. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), Dwayne Degraff (D-STT), Javan James (D-STX), Vialet and Frett-Gregory. Non-committee members Sens. Allison Degazon (D-STX) and Athneil “Bobby” Thomas (D-STT) were also present.