Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds readily admits the territory's public schools will not all be ready to open their doors when classes begin next week. And, to no one's surprise, she says the root of the problem is money or, rather, lack thereof.
Because of budget cutbacks, she said, the Education Department is unable to fill "a number of positions vacated by personnel who have resigned or retired." These are not teaching positions, she said, but custodians, librarians, food workers and clerical staff.
As a result, she said, the schools "are going to need volunteers to help in those areas."
As for the physical readiness of the school buildings and campuses, she said, "We have a long way to go to bring some of our plants into a condition of which we can all be proud." With regard to summer projects in particular, she added, "We do not have as much repair work completed as I would have liked," and some work is still under way.
Thus, returning students and staff will find that some schools still have electrical, roofing and bathroom fixture problems.
An obvious problem area not directly involving Education personnel is at the Joseph Sibilly School in Estate Elizabeth. There, Public Works Department personnel using numerous heavy equipment machines are in the midst of constructing a diversion of the road in front of the campus to take it farther away from the school grounds.
Citing "the charade commonly referred to as summer maintenance," Simmonds gave two reasons for the deficiencies:
First, the Education Department has "limited staff and no funding to carry out its mandate on a regular basis." And second, "extensive work cannot be done until the end of summer programs at many schools."
This, she added, "is nothing new."
Simmonds noted that she was a member of the "education cluster" on the Turnbull administration transition team at the end of last year. The cluster "identified major problems" in the areas of special education, funds for maintenance and repair personnel, a shortage of substitute teachers and schools' accreditation.
One bit of good news, she said, is that the department is "well on the way to rectifying the problems in the area of special education."
She called upon teachers and their union to work with the administration in seeking solutions to problems in the coming school year. There is, plain and simple, no way teachers are going to get their retroactive salaries any time soon, she said, because "the government is broke b-r-o-k-e."
Glen Smith, American Federation of Teacher president for St. Thomas-St. John, said the union has little sympathy for the administration given that "the governor found moneys to give raises to his friends and jobs to close members of his family."
The leadership of the territory's two AFT chapters will meet Aug. 26 to discuss issues relating to the start of the new school year, Smith said, and there will be "an emergency general membership meeting" Aug. 28.