After nearly two hours of debate on Thursday, 12 Virgin Islands senators voted to delay a decision to ratify a land swap between the V.I. Government and the National Park Service to provide a site to build a new public K-12 school on St. John.
Senators said they needed more time to seek information and explore alternatives to the proposed legislation that would exchange Whistling Cay, a roughly 18-acre island owned by the territory (now a wildlife sanctuary), for an 11-acre site in Estate Catherineberg owned by the National Park.
The senators voted in favor of a motion presented by Sen. Kenneth L. Gittens to take “not more than 45 working days for due diligence to be done.”
Sen. Dwayne M. DeGraff voted against the motion to postpone the decision but indicated earlier that he would have voted against the swap. “Dwayne Maurice DeGraff ain’ givin’ up nothing,” he said. “We have options.”
Senators Javan James and Marise James were absent at the time of the vote.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory said she supported the motion to postpone the decision. “I would not be able to sleep at night unless I knew due diligence was done. ‘Hurry dog eat raw meat,’” she said.
The Catherineberg site would provide enough space for a K-12 school, a hurricane shelter, and a multipurpose center. According to the terms of the agreement, the National Park Service will also make an equalizing payment of $210,000 to the Government of the Virgin Islands.
St. John is the only island in the territory without a high school. Currently, St. John students in grades 9-12 must take a ferry to St. Thomas, except for those who are home-schooled or attend a private high school on St. John.
The Catherineberg property has been under discussion as a site for a new school for at least 30 years and has been proposed by the Department of Education as a serious possibility since 2020.
At Thursday’s session, several senators said they did not have enough time to consider the proposed legislation, which was sent to them in June
Senators spent eight hours debating the issue last week.
Although every senator said they supported the construction of a new school on St. John, many said they had reservations about the territory having to give up land in order to acquire the Catherineberg site.
A land swap is necessary because the National Park Service is prohibited from selling or donating park land without Congressional approval. But many ancestral St. Johnians have said their families have already given up enough land to the Federal Government to create the Virgin Islands National Park.
The issue has “polarized the entire community,” said Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger, adding that it has created wounds that will not heal “without a major resolution.”
Sen. Ray Fonseca said the land swap issue will not resolve St. Johnians’ long-standing issues with the Park Service, including disputes over access to privately-owned land within the VINP boundaries.
Sen. Pres. Novelle Francis said he could make an argument for both sides of the issue, “I vex like hell with the Park Service…but we cannot conflate the issues.”
Sen. Marvin Blyden indicated that he would have voted in favor of the swap because after years of negotiations, the land and FEMA funding are available now, and “We might not have this opportunity again.”
Sen. Angel Bolques, the only senator from St. John (and the only senator who had to commute to attend high school), said he wished the executive branch had included the senators in conversations prior to the governor’s proposal. He indicated earlier in the session that he would have supported the swap because the executive branch had stated that no other written alternatives had been received.
In the past year, several residents of St. John have put forth other options for providing a school site in community meetings and on social media. Alternatives include local landowners offering possible sites and the territory exchanging submerged lands for the Catherineberg property.