July 10, 2002 – Acting Education Commissioner Noreen Michael was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to complete the territory's draft compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education that is intended to ensure that the Virgin Islands does not lose hundreds of millions of dollars in federal school funds.
Michael said in release issued Tuesday that she, along with Tregenza Roach, Education legal counsel, and Dwight Simmonds, the department's federal grants and audit director, was to meet with Phil Maestri, U.S. Department of Education chief financial officer, to complete the draft of the agreement that will be presented to the "core Virgin Islands team" for review. The release did not identify the makeup of the team, nor was the information available from the Education Department on Wednesday.
A team of U.S. Department of Education officials held a public hearing in February on St. Croix to discuss what was described as an imminent compliance agreement with the V.I. Under such an agreement, the V.I. Education Department would remain eligible to receive funds under a number of federal education programs while it works to solve a myriad of accounting and administrative problems that, according to Maestri, have already caused the feds to brand the local department a "high-risk grantee."
Under a compliance agreement which would have to be approved by both sides, the V.I. Education Department would agree to a timetable to make specific changes in program planning, administration and implementation, as well as in a number of other areas such as procurement, financial record keeping and property management. Maestri said the territory would likely have three years to come into full compliance; failure to do so would mean the loss of the approximately $30 million a year it receives in federal education funding.
The V.I. Education Department already is operating under a compliance agreement with the federal agency for the local Special Education Program.
Federal officials say audits dating back to 1994, recent audit work done by the U.S. department's Inspector General, and on-site visits to the territory's public schools show large-scale problems with financial accountability and program management that have existed for several years in the local system and continue to exist.
The areas that directly impact on the V.I. Education Department's ability to use federal funds properly, they say, include procurement, program planning, and management of personnel, finances and property.
In February, Michael, then assistant commissioner of Education, said that problems in procurement should be the most manageable, while those involving personnel could be the most difficult. She noted at the time that the government was moving toward computerizing the notoriously slow Notice of Personnel Action, or NOPA, process.
"I am hopeful of the NOPA process," she said then. "I think that is the thing about this [compliance agreement] process having so much merit: Even if the impetus is for the Education Department, it is going to mean improvements for the entire government," she said.
Efforts to obtain further information about Michael's trip to Washington met a stone wall Wednesday. The Education Department release quoted her as saying, "The department's contribution at this point of the process is both to answer questions about previous changes and to provide suggestions for planned actions acceptable to the V.I. government."
Juel Anderson, Education public relations director, is on leave. Lorna Sutton, special assistant to the commissioner, declined to answer any queries, saying only that the release was complete and didn't need further questions. She declined to say whether the new NOPA system to which Michael referred in February has been implemented, or what topics Michael and her associates were planning to discuss.
Sutton did say that Michael is expected back in the territory on July 15 and that she would probably issue a statement then.
Kenneth Hermon, Personnel Division associate director, said late Wednesday that electronic NOPA's are not yet in place for Education. The division is still focusing on its first conversion, of the Planning and Natural Resources Department, he said, and "there are still some problems to be worked out with electronic signatures." However, he said that Education "is slated right after DPNR."
In May, when Personnel Division director Joanne U. Barry invited the media to observe a demonstration of the new electronic NOPA system, she said she chose to use DPNR for the pilot program because it is a mid-sized department with some workers under collective bargaining agreements and some positions federally funded — the type of details that record keepers must be able to track. Converting DPNR, she said then, would be a dress rehearsal for taking on some of the larger departments, notably Education.
The compliance agreement with regard to federal funding eligibility is a separate matter from the V.I. Education Department's current efforts to gain reaccreditation for the three public high schools that had accreditation withdrawn in the last school year.
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