Jan. 21, 2004 – The V.I. Education Department is No. 1 in a ranking that is no cause for celebration, according to data released this month by the U.S. Department of Education.
On a per-student basis, last year, the Virgin Islands had to send back to Washington more unused federal education money than any state or other territory in the nation.
At the end of September 2003 (the end of the federal and the territorial fiscal year) the Virgin Islands, by not using available grant funds, allowed the reversion of $2,038,531 to the U.S. Treasury. Because the money — federal grant funds from eight educational assistance awards — was not used over a period of years, it automatically reverted to Washington.
The Virgin Islands sent back $97.13 per student to Washington. On the same statistical basis, the national average for unused funds returned was $3.33 per student.
Puerto Rico and American Samoa were a distant second and a more distant third to the territory, not using — and thus, losing — $64.73 and $58.62 per student, respectively.
The federal government records these figures annually; the FY 2003 totals are for money originally allocated in fiscal year 1999.
In another tabulation, also issued earlier this month, the U.S. Education Department showed the extent to which various jurisdictions had not yet used federal funds but could do so in the immediate future if they followed the rules. Again the Virgin Islands is No. 1 — and the amount of money involved is considerable: a total of $32.9 million allocated to the territory that had not been used as of Jan. 6.
Percentage of unused funds 5 times national average
According to this tabulation, 39.4 percent of the education assistance funds available to the territory in fiscal years 2000, 2001 and 2002 had not yet been used. The nationwide average of non-use by states and territories was 8 percent of the money available to them.
Ranked right after Virgin Islands in non-use or slow-use were the small, semi-independent nations of the mid-Pacific such as the Federated States of Micronesia, jurisdictions which historically have had much-documented difficulties with public funds. The state with the highest percentage of yet-to-be-used funds was Ohio, at 16.5 percent.
Following is a breakdown by programs of the territory's so-far-unused allocations of federal funds which could be subject to reversion if they are not spent properly by local educators within the allotted times:
Education for the Disadvantaged — $13,913,747 (42.3 percent of the allocation)
Special Education — $2,636,010 (9.2 percent of the allocation)
School Improvement — $15,406,641 (86 percent of the allocation)
Vocational and Adult Education — $615,324 (23.9 percent of the allocation)
English Language Acquisition — $214,903 (40.9 percent of the allocation)
Impact Aid — $94,368 (14.9 percent of the allocation)
Total — $32,880,993 (39.4 percent of the allocation)
A U.S. Department of Education spokesman said that five of these six programs require no local matching funds, and that only a small portion of the sixth — the Vocational Education program — requires a local match. All of the federal funds are distributed through a formula; the Virgin Islands does not have to file a competitive application for any of the listed programs.
Restrictions now apply to some unspent funds
A portion of the $32.9 million may already be slated for reversion, as early as Sept. 30 of this year, but this could not be ascertained from Washington officials. The $32.9 million total includes funds appropriated in the years 2000, 2001 and 2002, and the rules for spending funds from the first two years are more restrictive than those regarding the 2002 money.
The fine print: None of these funds are, to use the Washington lingo, "no-year funds" — allocations that can be rolled over, year after year, before being spent.
The 2000 and 2001 funds may now be used only to reimburse the territory for past expenditures not yet billed to Washington. They may not be used for new expenditures; only the 2002 funds can be used in that way. The U.S. Department of Education was unable to break the $32.9 million total down by year for the three years in question.
Following are the percentages of the not-yet-used 2000, 2001 and 2002 federal education assistance funds for each of the U.S.-affiliated islands, as reported by the U.S. Department of Education:
Virgin Islands — 39.4 percent
Federated States of Micronesia — 38.7 percent
Republic of Palau — 37.6 percent
Marshall Islands — 35.2 percent
Puerto Rico — 21.3 percent
Guam — 16.1 percent
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — 13.3 percent
American Samoa — 11.5 percent
The federal spokesman who explained the operations of the system declined to comment on why the Virgin Islands had been so slow to spend the allocated funds. The Source tried for three business days last week to get a statement from V.I. Education Department officials on the matter, employing telephone calls, e-mail messages and a fax transmitting the federal tabulations. The only response was from the departmental spokesperson, Juel Anderson, who said: "They send us the money so late that we can't spend it all."
There was no answer to the question of why the other 58 states and territories, getting their money on presumably the same time schedules, were able to use far larger portions of their funds.
'We do not know who is responsible'
In contrast, Tyrone Molyneaux, president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, had a lot to say on the subject.
"The problem is not a lack of need," he said. "We need every penny we can get for the students and the schools. It is a management problem — the lack of accountability within the system. We do not know who is responsible for the non-use of these federal funds."
He continued: "We are spending more on education these days, but the system is worse now than when we spent less … There is a lack of technology, lack of personnel generally, a lack of special education teachers, and a real need to protect our schools better than we are [doing] now."
On the last point, Molyneaux said that there are instances every week or so when schools are broken into and valuables are removed. He said that twice in recent months — at Alfredo Andrews Elementary School and Arthur A. Richards Junior High School — computers, television sets and other educational materials for special ed students were delivered, and shortly afterward were stolen.
Molyneaux noted that problems perceived by U.S. officials concerning how federal assistance funds had been used by the Virgin Islands in the past led to the imposition of a federal compliance agreement in 2002. "This may have complicated things for the territory," he said.
In the agreement with the U.S. Education Department, the V.I. government pledged to comply with terms to ensure that more than $30 million a year in school funds would continue to flow into the territory despite federal authorities having branded the local Education Department a "high-risk grantee." (See "V.I. posts education pact compliance data online".)
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