Almost $5 million from federal grants to the V.I. Department of Education expired in 2019, Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin told the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development Tuesday.
The expired $5 million came from nine separate federal education grants dating back as far as 2012, Berry-Benjamin said. The grants are typically awarded to be used within a specified time frame and if they are not, the money goes back to the federal government.
To Sen. Novelle Francis Jr., the department needs to do more to prevent that from happening.
“It is important that we leave with a clear understanding that we cannot allow funds to be sent back or lapse,” he said. “Even though we are able to receive extensions, in some instances, there must be some action taken and the public be reassured that we are doing everything possible to make sure these funds are expended.”
The expired grant money was supposed to be used on special education, adult education and the Virgin Islands Virtual Information System. Berry-Benjamin said several reasons kept the funds from being used before the deadlines passed – including not fulfilling purchase orders in a suitable time which delayed spending. However, nearly all the lapsed grant money boiled down to one reason, insufficient time for the department to reprogram the funds.
Berry-Benjamin said in recent years a decline in student enrollment was one of the department’s greatest challenges, along with staff turnovers, vacancies, untimely reprogramming of funds, insufficient staff, lack of training for new staff and the procurement process.
Berry-Benjamin said the department has established timelines to ensure timely obligation and use of funds. Additional funds were allocated for training of federal grants personnel and changes were made internally to improve the procurement process.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, who was commissioner of Education in the previous administration and is now chairwoman of the committee, said she was concerned about another $19 million in grant funds scheduled to expire in fiscal year 2020 if they are not used.
“Do we have a clear plan to spend this money or are we going to hear later that you lapsed X amount of dollars?”
Kemo Smith, the department’s federal grants director, said Education would submit a plan to Frett-Gregory when it is finished.
“These funds that are expiring should have already been obligated. The award year, that’s the obligation year, and the second year is your liquidation year. $19 million is a lot of money to be obligating and liquidating at the same time,” Frett-Gregory said.
Department of Education Deputy Commissioner of Fiscal and Administrative Services Ava Penn said the department has finalized the timeline to ensure the obligation and liquidation of the 2017, 2018 and 2019 grant funds.
“Then we will be caught up for the 2020 grant period which is due April of this year,” Penn said.