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Cruz Bay
Wednesday, May 22, 2024


Before yet another plan was hatched Wednesday to find money owed the territory’s teachers, schools were closed and the picket signs had come out.
On St. Croix, pockets of teachers and paraprofessionals gathered outside schools to show their dissatisfaction with a proposed contract.
Estimates are that 90 percent of the 1,200 members in the territory’s two chapters of the American Federation of Teachers union walked off the job Wednesday, causing more than 20,000 students to miss school.
It is unclear how long the strike will last. Members of the Legislature and the Turnbull administration are trying to find a way to pay educators and support staff, who are owed millions in salary increases since the 1994-95 school year.
In a meeting on Wednesday, Senate President Vargrave Richards brought up the possibility of raising revenue through the sale of delinquent property taxes, a measure that was signed into law two years ago.
"This law has apparently not been implemented due to a series of property tax amnesties that have been subsequently granted," most recently in December 1999, Richards said.
He said the revenue source could provide "substantial financial assistance in the millions."
Teachers on the picket lines Wednesday said they we getting support from the community. With that support and without a contract, many of the strikers said they would stay out indefinitely.
"The public is supporting us by not sending their kids," said Harry Schwartz, a teacher at the Day Adult Education Center on St. Croix. "It’s a success."
William Peters, an teacher at the St. Croix Vocational School, said the strike had "no limits." The administration, said Peters, "better start looking for a solution. We’re willing to stay out until then."
The strike resulted from the administration's insistence that 50 percent of retroactive pay owed teachers, which amounts to some $60 million, be forgiven. Also unacceptable were clauses in the contract that would strip teachers of increases between 1995 and 2000, which would affect benefits of those who want to retire in the next three years.
Tyrone Molyneaux, St. Croix AFT president, has said that if teachers gave up the step increases, they would not receive retirement contributions or Social Security for those years calculated into retirement benefits. That would amount to a $20,000 to $25,000 loss to each teacher, he said. Giving up retroactive pay would cost about $35,000 to $40,000 per teacher, he added.
The proposed agreement also called for teachers to pay half their retirement and health benefits.
The government’s proposal gave $8.6 million in salary increases for the 1994-95 and 2000-01 school years, which translated into a $2,000 to $3,000 increase, Molyneaux said. The agreement would have released the government from 50 percent of all claims to retroactive wages owed from 1991 through 1995.
Schwartz said that earlier in the year St. Croix AFT members voted to let then-AFT president Cecil Benjamin make some concessions in the contract negotiations. But the outcome, especially the retro issue, was unacceptable. He said the proposed 3 percent increase would be negated by the increase in health and retirement contributions.
"All we want is a contract," Schwartz said. "Leave our retro alone."
Kenneth Guthrie, who also teaches at the Day Adult Education Center, said Turnbull’s oft repeated slogan that the children are the administration’s priority doesn’t wash.
"We just want an effort to resolve the situation," he said.

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