Students at the Julius E. Sprauve School were sent home with work packets for two days on Thursday after students and faculty experienced a variety of symptoms from foul odors and airborne irritants.
The cause of the problem may have been the malfunctioning of the Cruz Bay sewage treatment plant, which has been offline since March 8, or it may have been from mold that has accumulated in the temporary modular units that have served as classrooms since Hurricane Irma struck in 2017.
Whatever the cause, the disruption of education for the 210 K-8 students attending St. John’s only public school highlights the need to find a suitable location and construct a new facility to serve students from preschool through high school.
The demand for constructing a new school has ebbed and flowed for decades.
In 2020, officials from the Virgin Islands Government and the National Park Service identified a site and reached an agreement to move forward on an exchange of an 11-acre parcel in Estate Catherineberg (within the V.I. National Park) and Whistling Cay, an 18-acre island owned by the territorial government (surrounded by Park Service waters).
Proponents of the exchange celebrated that a viable plan had finally been developed which would allow students to attend a brand-new school built with FEMA disaster funding away from the congestion (and sometimes foul odors) of Cruz Bay.
As part of the process for the land swap to be finalized, the NPS has held a series of public meetings to get comments from all segments of the community.
In recent weeks, the debate has become more heated, leading the NPS to extend the comment period and Del. Stacey Plaskett to hold an online forum for people to air their views.
The final deadline for placing comments is Wednesday, March 15, and as it approaches, members of the community have objected to the exchange for a variety of reasons. Almost everyone agrees that a new school is necessary, but opinions about where to build it and how to compensate the owner of the land varies.
Some National Park conservationists have said that Estate Catherineberg is not an appropriate site; it has too many precious cultural and historic resources that could be jeopardized by the construction of a school and the commercial development that would inevitably follow.
Other conservationists say that when the deed for the Estate Catherineberg site was transferred to the Virgin Islands National Park, its owner explicitly stated the property should be preserved or remain for non-commercial residential purposes only, “except as has been approved in writing by the Secretary of the Interior or his [sic] duly approved representative.” (The current Secretary is a woman, Deb Haaland.)
However, the most vocal group against the land swap is largely made up of ancestral St. Johnians who have said essentially that their families had already sold or donated land when the Virgin Islands National Park was established, and it’s time for the federal government to give something back.
A FAQ sheet on the park’s land exchange website explains, “The National Park Service has no legal authority to donate land. Federal law prohibits conveyance of property from National Parks. The same law authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to exchange lands within National Parks. In general, only Congress can change the boundary of a National Park.”
St. Johnians, however, have called for the federal government to make an exception and donate the Estate Catherineberg site.
On Saturday, Jessica S. Samuel presented “Placing School,” a talk at Bajo El Sol Gallery which examines how “St. John’s history as a national park island and U.S. territory has influenced local efforts to obtain a K-12 public school on the island.”
Samuel, who grew up on St. Croix and St. John, based her talk on her doctoral dissertation, “Consuming the U.S. Virgin Islands: Conservation & Education in America’s Paradise.”
The talk, which was broadcast live and is available on Bajo El Sol’s Facebook page, provides context for the recent debate. Samuel gives an overview of St. John’s history and political status and explores the colonialism that has encompassed both the rise of tourism and the dominant presence of the National Park on St. John.
“Finding a place for a school has long been a reflection of native people’s effort to find their place on an island that increasingly looks less and less like their home,” Samuel said.
While some members of the St. John community call for continuing the search for alternatives to the proposed land swap, others now look at the current conditions at the Sprauve School, the political climate in Washington (including possible loss of federal funding if the process is delayed) and conclude it’s time to seal the deal on the land exchange.
You can make your opinion known through March 15.
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