Although the territory won’t know until March 2020 which, if any, schools FEMA will rebuild, the Education Department is not wasting time. During a half dozen community meetings on St. Croix and St. Thomas, they announced construction proposals and enlisted public support for ideas to improve education at all levels.
The proposals and ideas will be presented to FEMA.
Tuesday’s meeting at Juanita Gardine K-8 attracted several dozen people, including Sens. Novelle Francis Jr., Kenneth Gittens and Kurt Vialet along with St. Croix Insular Superintendent Carlos McGregor.
Education Chief Operations Officer Dionne Wells-Hedrington announced that two schools on St. Croix will be demolished and one on St. Thomas – Evelyn Williams Elementary, Arthur Richards Junior High and Charlotte Amalie High school.
“It is something that needs to be done. Our schools are not waiting for us to fix them. They are falling apart,” she said.
All of the proposals are contingent on FEMA’s final assessment of Virgin Islands schools after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. If they determine the damage is 50 percent or more, the facility will be rebuilt, if not, it will be repaired.
A proposed timeline by Education indicated that FEMA will announce the final award amount in March, another round of public input meetings will be held in the spring and construction will begin next summer with new schools opening in 2024.
Wells-Hedrington said the first draft to FEMA was rejected. Instead the federal government wanted to adopt standards used for Puerto Rico. Education officials are hoping FEMA will agree that all schools should be rebuilt or repaired to federal codes. The next FEMA proposal will be submitted in two or three weeks.
Since the hurricanes, the department has formed construction advisory boards for each district comprising of 20 teachers, parents, students, community members, higher educators, unions, boards and members of the Legislature. The construction boards were charged with developing guiding principles for the schools, but nothing has been finalized. They recognized that the department cannot maintain 43 facilities and recommended new and reconstructed schools with smaller footprints that the department can manage. (Education architect Chaneel Callwood-Daniels said the maintenance budget, according to federal standards, should be around $22 million, not the current $3 million.)
For the future, the St. Croix Education Department’s proposal includes an administration center, Claude O. Markoe PK-8, Arthur Richards PK-8 at the Evelyn Williams site; and Mid Island PK-8 to unite Ricardo Richards, Lew Muckle and Alfredo Andrews at an undetermined location. Juanita Gardine and Pearl B. Larsen would accommodate PK-8 and the two high schools – St. Croix Central and St. Croix Educational Complex would remain the same. John H. Woodsen would become a vocational school.
During the two hour meeting, people broke into smaller groups and discussed the different aspects of the Education proposal. They were urged to write down and submit their suggestions.
One group discussed what would be needed to create learning labs for music, band, exercise and yoga, classrooms for lecturing and social spaces. Another group talked about the future locations of schools, including the possibility of mega-schools and relocating facilities away from flood and tsunami zones.
Gittens asked about Arthur Richards Elementary on the west end of St. Croix. The school has been relocated into modular buildings since the hurricanes and the Department of Education plans not to rebuild it, at this time, because it is in a tsunami zone. Gittens said he’d like to invite the department and the board of education to testify before the Senate and inform the public of all plans.
“This sounds like a community meeting to get input, but Arthur Richards sounds like a done deal,” he said.
According to Callwood-Daniels, the information gathered at community meetings will be analyzed by engineers to determine what will work and what can be incorporated into department plans.
“All students will have a new or modernized facility,” she said.
Another series of public meetings before March will allow the public to see the results and provide more feedback.
The last community meeting will be at St. Croix Central High School cafeteria from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday. Previous meetings were held at the V.I. Legislative Annex on St. John; Ivanna Eudora Kean, Charlotte Amalie High School and the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Thomas; and Claude O. Markoe Elementary on St. Croix.