July 31, 2002 – The V.I. government will enter into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education committing to make needed improvements in education programs or face the prospect of losing multi-millions of dollars in annual federal funding.
The compliance agreement is expected to be finalized within the next two weeks, and it will go into effect immediately, acting Education Commissioner Noreen Michael said at a press conference Wednesday. Its purpose is to force local education officials to make improvements in fiscal management, hiring, procurement practices and documentation of how the federal funds are being used to benefit students.
If the department does not make the improvements, the territory could lose some or all of the $31 million it receives each year in federal education funding, Michael said.
"We'll have to correct fiscal and administrative difficulties that have hindered our education programs," she said. "The ultimate goal of this agreement is to improve the education system in the Virgin Islands."
The compliance agreement gives the territory three years to bring its administrative standards up to criteria outlined in federal law, said Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.
"This is a last resort," he said of the compliance agreement. It is rare that a state or territory has to come under such an agreement, he said, one other example being a District of Columbia compliance agreement for its special education programs.
"The territory has quite a bit of ground to cover to meet the requirements of the law," Bradshaw said.
The territory's public school students rank at or near the bottom of the nation on SAT's and other standardized tests of reading, math and science ability.
Last November, Central, Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean High Schools lost their national accreditation because they had not shown improvements in basic areas such as teacher and student absenteeism and in efforts to increase onsite management of the schools. The fourth public high school, Educational Complex, has never been accredited.
Many of the complaints leading to the loss of accreditation were similar to those that have been raised by federal education officials: that they were not seeing improvements made, even long after problems had been brought to light.
Federal education officials have cited lack of audits, co-mingling of federal dollars with other education funds, and lack of progress reports on projects funded by federal funds. And they deem the territory a "high-risk grantee" for federal funding because of problems in fiscal management and a bureaucracy that slows everything from hiring new teachers to buying learning materials, Michael said.
Federal education officials will work with local administrators to help them comply with the terms of the agreement, Bradshaw said.
At the press conference, Michael also said:
– Summer school maintenance work is on schedule, and unless unforeseen circumstances come up, all of the schools are expected to be ready to open on Aug. 27, when students begin returning to classes.
– The Education Department is working to fill about 85 vacancies created by retirements and resignations. Recruiters have gone to mainland job fairs and have set up a jobs Web site and a toll-free telephone number for candidates to obtain information.
Needed are teachers of math, foreign languages, special education, music, art and other disciplines, Michael said. As an incentive, the department is offering recent University of the Virgin Islands graduates a $1,500 signing bonus and off-island candidates a one-way airline ticket and two months' rent, she said. It's also offering tuition reimbursement for teachers who need course credits to get their V.I. teaching certificate, she said.
– In September, the department with the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the territory's accrediting body, will hold accreditation workshops for administrators and staff of the territory's high schools.
The workshops are to outline what needs to be done for the schools to begin trying to regain accreditation. Presenters will discuss the problems that led to the loss of accreditation and what needs to change, and then participants will learn about the self-study that each high school will need to undertake. The re-accreditation process involves outlining programs for improving schools and setting up schedules to see those improvements through, Middle States officials have said.
The territory is seeking accreditation for all four high schools, Michael said Wednesday.
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