May 20, 2005 Members of the Senate Education, Culture and Youth Committee berated the Education Department Friday for what they dubbed the slow pace at which the department's capital projects were progressing.
Committee Chairman Sen. Liston A. Davis called a hearing to take testimony on the status of the department's capital projects and the school bus transportation system.
"We know we have major capital needs," Education Commissioner Noreen Michael told the committee. "But we know we won't be able to address all of them."
Michael said her department has listed the capital projects in priority phases and will address as much of them as they can with the resources given. She said the V.I. Public Finance Authority has identified $12.5 million for the department's use in completing the capital projects.
On St. Thomas, the top priority includes the construction of classrooms destroyed in a November fire at the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School and several Ivanna Eudora Kean High School projects that must be completed in order for the school to gain full accreditation. On St. Croix, the Education Department is focused on Central High School projects that need to be completed in order to gain accreditation.
Michael indicated that the Cancryn projects would begin soon. She said all engineering and architectural drawings were complete and had been submitted to the Property and Procurement Department.
"The request for bids for this project was advertised, and bids were received and evaluated," Michael said. "APEX Construction was selected to do the job."
Michael said preliminary work has also begun on some of the Kean projects and the other Kean projects are slated to begin later this month.
The projects, which have to be completed in order for Kean to gain full accreditation, are the sealing of the walls and repairing of leaking roofs of the academic and administration buildings, construction of a cover for the ramps and repair of railings, repairs to leaks in the gymnasium and construction of an athletic track. Michael said most of the Kean projects should be completed by the end of the 2005-2006 school year.
The department has also begun work on regenerating the existing well at Kean High and the installation of a reverse osmosis plant on the school campus. Although not required for the school to gain accreditation, Michael said the project would help the department reduce its water costs in the future. This project is expected to be completed in September.
The Central High capital projects, which will also determine whether the school gains full accreditation, are:
– Repairs and renovation to the school's parking lot. The project is about 50 percent completed, Michael said;
– Repairs to existing science laboratories and construction of three new laboratories. While repairs on the existing laboratories have been completed, a scope of work has not yet been finalized for the construction of the new labs;
– Repairs to electrical problems and upgrades to the electrical infrastructure. Michael said a study of the school's electrical infrastructure is underway, with an expected June completion date. No work has begun in this area yet.
– The Maintenance Division has completed various repairs to the gymnasium, Michael said, but a scope of work is still being developed for a parking lot in the area of the gym.
– Repairs to leaking roofs and replacement of emergency exit doors at the Music Suite Building. These repairs have been completed, Michael said.
– Correction of drainage system problems to prevent flooding throughout the facility. Michael said although some work has been done, the department is still awaiting construction documents.
– Repairs to plumbing in the bathrooms and the plumbing infrastructure as a whole. The Maintenance Division has done some repairs, but there is still work to be done, Michael said.
Caribbean Professional Consultants (CPC) has been hired by the PFA to do the scopes of works and to develop cost estimates, she reported.
Sen. Usie Richards berated CPC President Edmond Blaize for the slow pace at which his company was releasing scopes of work for the projects, particularly in the St. Croix District, which he represents. Richards said Blaize had told the committee in February that the scopes of work would be completed in 30 to 45 days.
The department does not yet have a full estimate of how much the total projects would cost and could not tell senators whether the full $12.5 million would be utilized, or whether they would need more money.
In response to questioning from Richards, Michael said only six of the 15 capital projects on St. Croix had begun, all of them at Central High.
Sen. Craig Barshinger said he saw no projects for St. John in the Priority One phase. He asked the education officials when the last time any site visits or repairs were made at schools on St. John. None of the officials could give a clear answer. Michael and Frett told the committee that neither of them had visited the school since the Feb. 28 hearing of the committee.
"I have been focusing on accreditation for Central High School and the issue of our federal grants," Michael said as her reason for not visiting St. John. Davis reminded her that she promised at the February meeting to pay more visits to the schools on St. John.
Louis Hughes, Maintenance Division director, said a new contractor had been hired for the Guy Benjamin School on St. John. However, Hughes said he had not gone to the island to see what, if any, repairs had been made to the schools there. More assessments needed to be done at the schools, Hughes said.
"I am sick of all these assessments," Davis said. "I am getting calls in my office, even from St. Croix, complaining about deplorable conditions in the schools. You are always saying the problems need to be addressed. That response is getting annoying."
He added, "Every time we come here, it is the same old soup slightly warmed over."
Davis said he understood that Cancryn, Kean and Central High were priorities, but he believed that the other schools should be worked on as well. Davis cited the J. Antonio Jarvis school, which he attended, as one example.
"That school is in real bad shape," Davis said. "J. Antonio Jarvis needs some urgent attention. I attended that school, and believe me, the condition of that school hasn't changed much from since I attended."
Frett said all the schools were priorities, but added, "We have to concentrate on Eudora Kean High School because we are under a federal mandate to get it finished by December 2005."
Senators also heard from several disgruntled school bus drivers Friday, but encouraged them to take the proper steps in seeking redress for their grievances.
All committee members were present at the hearing Friday.
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