June 26, 2003 – One reason that V.I. public school students do abysmally on national standardized testing, Education Commissioner Noreen Michael said at one point in hours of testimony before a Senate committee on Wednesday; is the Board of Education policy that prohibits teachers from failing any pupil from kindergarten to fourth grade.
At another point, she told the senators that some $25.6 million has been spent on public school repairs in the last three years.
Those kinds of facts and figures pointed up for the lawmakers the complexity, in terms of both programming and budgeting, of running the V.I. government's largest department.
Michael had answers for most of the questions put to her by the Senate Education and Youth Committee, but they were not solutions for the problems the questions addressed.
Many of those problems have to do with the quality of public education in the territory. Many of them also have to do with money — which, Michael said, has just gotten to be a bigger problem that it was a week ago.
She said she learned on Monday from the Office of Management and Budget that the administration's decision to reduce General Fund allocations by $9 million as one response to the territory's fiscal crisis means a cutback of $2.7 million to the Education Department. That comes on top of an earlier anticipated budget shortfall of $5.7 million, she said.
That adds up to a reduction of $8.4 million in the department's Fiscal Year 2003 budget of $147.9 from the General Fund. For FY 2003, the governor proposed a total budget of $179.4, including a projected $31.6 million in federal funds, for Education, which has the largest budget of any government entity. That was up from $168.9 million in the FY 2002 budget.
In the fact of the cutbacks, Michael said, the department has submitted a list of priority budgetary needs totaling about $3.3 million.
No Child Left Behind Act
Michael said the Education Department has been given until October of 2006 to comply with mandates of the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act. She related progress in the development of plans to ensure future teacher quality and certification
Senators raised questions about the poor performance of V.I. students in the last two decades on standardized achievement and aptitude tests in areas including reading, writing and mathematics. In order to solve this problem, Michael said, progress must be made in three areas:
– The department must adopt "challenging academic content and achievement standards." She said the department is training teachers in the implementation of these standards to ensure that students at every grade level will receive instruction in the "appropriate critical areas."
– There must be continual assessment of student progress in reading, language arts, math and science, along with the assessing of special education students and those of limited English proficiency. When assessments are aligned with academic content and achievement standards, she said, "students will be better able to compete on norm-referenced achievement and aptitude tests."
– The department must utilize territorywide assessment to hold schools and the two districts accountable for having all students "reach proficiency in reading/language arts and mathematics" as they progress from grade to grade. Progress must be made yearly in order for students to reach proficiency in all subject areas, she said.
It was in response to a question from Sen. Roosevelt David about why increasing numbers of the territory's fourth graders are performing so far below average academic standards that Michael cited the policy of "no retention" of students from kindergarten to fourth grade. As a result, she said, the highest percentage of students retained occurs at the fourth grade level.
Michael cited a Reading First grant for primary school levels. "Reading is the foundation," she said. "If there is no solid reading comprehension, students will not be successful."
Sen. Louis Hill demanded a closer look at teacher performance, and Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said that "maybe it's about time parents pursue the option of suing the government for mis-educating our children."
Progress toward high school accreditation
In May, the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges approved candidacy for accreditation for three of the territory's four public high schools — Central and Charlotte Amalie, which are seeking reaccreditation after having lost it in November of 2001, and Educational Complex, which has not previously been accredited. Middle States denied candidacy to Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, which also is seeking to regain its lost accreditation.
Michael said that the CAHS administration is seeking commitment from staff to complete a self-study program within a 12-month period instead of the 16 months proposed by Middle States.
She also said Central and Complex have established steering committees to consider plans for the coming school year and that Eudora Kean established a steering committee on June 12 to address the six areas of concern cited by the Middle States in denying it candidacy.
According to a release from the Legislature, Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd asked William Frett, St. Thomas-St. John schools superintendent, what is being done about the Middle States rejection of Eudora Kean's candidacy. Frett said officials are looking at school structures including the gymnasium and administration building, and will get estimates for repairs. He said the school will ask Middle States by December for a reinspection of the school.
In denying candidacy to EKHS a month ago, Michael said in announcing the decision on June 2, Middle States cited as areas of special concern "health, safety and security of students; facilities; finances; stability in leadership; and lack of willingness and interest in engaging in the accreditation process."
And, the release said, when Sen. Ronald Russell, committee chair, asked about the status of school security, Michael replied: "There are no funds for school security."
Federal compliance agreement
Michael noted that as part of its 2002 compliance agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, the local department has published federal toll-free hotline telephone numbers for people to report the suspected misuse of federal funds by the department.
Also, she said, the department has developed a policy statement for reviewing sub-grantee awards and has completed a semi-annual reconciliation report on grant administration and payments.
(As another part of the compliance agreement, the department early this year set up a Web site for posting information concerning the agreement and the territory's actions to comply therewith. See "V.I. posts education pact compliance data online".)
School summer repairs and maintenance
Michael said the Public Works Department usually prepares the "necessary summer school repair plans and secures the necessary funding to accommodate those plans." However, she said, with the fiscal crisis, Education personnel have been meeting with staff of the Office of Management and Budget and the governor's Capital Projects director in an effort to cover the work that need to be done this summer.
After citing the $25.6 million spent in the last three years on school repairs, she said that the department has received a $1.3 million federal Emergency Renovation Grant to address critical health and safety issues in the schools. She said the department has "prioritized such projects to be completed this summer" using the funds.
Projects including electrical system and fire safety upgrades, roof repairs and the installation of intercom systems have been started in St. Croix schools and are projected to be completed in Augus
t, she said.
Work on schools in the St. Thomas-St. John district have not begun yet, but the work, including similar repairs as well as generator and bathroom upgrades, also should be completed by the end of August, she said.
Michael also presented her own wish list for Senate action. She told the senators that there is a need for a Gun Free Schools Act requiring that students found to have brought weapons to school be expelled for at least a year, and for bills dealing with truancy and with the education of children with disabilities.
According to the release from the Legislature, Sen. Carlton Dowe brought up recently enacted school-based budgeting legislation providing for individual schools to purchase materials and contract services up to $50,000 on their own without going through the government bureaucracy. "To this day, no school has received the $50,000," he said.
Committee members present at the afternoon hearing were the chair, Sen. Ronald Russell; and Sens. Baptiste, David, Hill, Luther Renee and Raymond "Usie" Richards. Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone was excused. Sens. Carlton Dowe and Almando "Rocky" Liburd, who are not members of the committee, also were present.
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