July 27, 2002 – Acting Education Commissioner Noreen Michael didn't get off to a good start at her department's Fiscal Year 2003 budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee on Friday, and from there, things only got worse.
Although Michael was present to discuss the department's financial needs for the coming year, very little testimony dealt with the budget. Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, who chairs the committee, and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who is a committee member but also chairs the Education Committee were more interested in learning the status of the quest for reaccreditation of the three public high schools that lost their accreditation last November.
First, Michael failed to appear at the schedule 1:30 p.m. start of the hearing. Hansen called a recess. When the session reconvened and Michael began to give testimony, Hansen interrupted to ask for an apology for her tardiness and for copies of her prepared statement. Michael did apologize but said she didn't have a part of the printed material with her. Hansen retorted, "So you're not prepared, either."
Arriving with a battery of Education officials who sat behind her in the gallery of the Senate chambers, Michael described workshops the department has conducted on the reaccreditation process and a task force comprising the high school principals, the two superintendents and representatives of the teachers' and school administrators' unions and the Board of Education. She said the associate director of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Mary Ann Keely, who met with Education officials on St. Thomas in June, will conduct an accreditation institute in the territory in the fall.
According to Michael, Education so far has met all of the reaccreditation deadlines set by the Middle States Commission on Secondary Schools, which is the accrediting body for the Virgin Islands.
After warnings dating from the mid-1990s, the association withdrew the accreditation of Central, Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean High Schools last November. The territory's other public high school, Educational Complex, has never been accredited. Michael was assistant Education commissioner under Ruby Simmonds until April 30, the day Gov. Charles W. Turnbull fired Simmonds after learning that Middle States had denied the territory's appeal of the loss of accreditation.
Jn Baptiste quizzed Michael and Rosalia Payne, St. Thomas-St. John district superintendent, on the status of federal funding for the schools. In the past, Education has lost millions of dollars in unspent federal funds. Payne couldn't answer Jn Baptiste's question about how much funding the department stands to lose this fiscal year or give him a satisfactory answer on progress toward reaccreditation. He then told her, "As far as I'm concerned, nothing has been done. Get your act together."
In a letter this week, Jn Baptiste took Michael to task for missing a June 30 deadline to submit progress reports to the Legislature on site-based management and a substitute teacher pool for the schools. Michael wrote back to say she expected to have the reports ready by July 31.
Turning to the coming school year, Michael told the senators that summer maintenance will be completed at all schools in time for the start of classes on Aug. 27.
Very little time was spent on the Education budget, the largest of any government entity. The governor has proposed $147.9 million from the General Fund and projected $31.6 in federal funds for a total of $179.4 million. The combined FY 2002 budget was $168.9 million.
Michael was called to account again when Sonia Clendinen, acting deputy commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, began to testify. "How long have you been 'acting'?" Hansen demanded to know. When Clendinen replied, "One year," Hansen appeared astonished. "What have you done to address this?" she asked Michael, who replied, "Nothing, but I will do something immediately, senator."
Hansen reminded Michael that her own appointment as acting commissioner will expire at the end of 90 days, which will be at the end of July. The senator said she would ask the governor to submit a nominee for the position. "We need to have a captain, especially when it's critical times now. We should not be left without a captain. We need somebody we feel we can trust to do this job," she said.
School boards, Internal Revenue Bureau, Veterans Affairs
The committee also heard budget requests from the Board of Education and the Board of Vocational Education. Jorge Galiber, Board of Education chair, asked for the governor's recommended amount of $1.5 million. He said the board is progressing with certification of all professional staff to comply with the new federal "No Child left Behind Act." The law requires that all such personnel staff in the territory be certified by July 2005, he said.
Galiber also said this year's revenues from the repayment of student loans stand at $370,185 as of June, which is 17 percent above the amount at this time last year.
The Rev. Eddie Williams, Board of Vocational Education chair, said his body regularly receives less funding than it requests. For FY 2003, he asked for $1.3 million to extend its programs. The governor has recommended $200,000, down from its $300,000 appropriation for this fiscal year.
The committee also heard from the Internal Revenue Bureau and the Office of Veterans Affairs.
Louis Willis, IRB director, said his agency could live with the governor's proposed $9.1 million from the General Fund. "The amount is adequate and can support the vacant positions within the bureau," he said. The amount represents a 2 percent increase from the FY 2002 appropriation of $8.9 million.
Willis said the bureau has so far this year processed 2001 income tax refunds totaling $27.7 million. Some 5,000 returns remain to be processed, Willis said, because of inaccurate information such as two individuals claiming a deduction for the same child on returns. "Too many people are duplicating dependents," he said.
For FY 2003, he said, the agency's thrust will differ from FY 2002, when the focus has been on getting refunds out promptly and eliminating a backlog from prior years. In the coming fiscal year, he said, "we will be focusing on collections and assessment processes, providing extensive training to our staff, especially revenue agents and officers."
Other goals for the coming year, he said, are conducting taxpayer education programs, extending IRB operating hours and filling all vacant positions.
For the Office of Veterans Affairs, its acting director, Justin Harrigan Sr., asked the senators for more money. The governor's recommended $291,714 would not suffice, he said, requesting an additional $111,750 to purchase vehicles, increase salaries for vacant positions, and assist local veterans with travel expenses when they must go to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Puerto Rico for treatment.
Harrigan explained that the veterans' clinic in the territory offers only "limited" services.
He also said that high on his list of goals for the coming fiscal year is completion of the design phase of a veterans' cemetery on St. Croix.
All committee members attended the meeting — Sens. Donald "Ducks" Cole, Douglas Canton Jr., Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Carlton Dowe, Hansen, Jn Baptiste and Norma Pickard-Samuel. One non-committee member, Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, also attended.
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