July 8, 2005 The V.I. Senate has been having a difficult time setting up a meeting to discuss what some are calling a crisis in the V.I. Department of Education.
Senate President Lorraine Berry has scheduled, then cancelled, two meetings to discuss a June 17 order from the U.S. Department of Education to the V.I. government to hire a third-party financial officer to oversee spending of the federal education grants it receives. (See "Feds Order Education Department to Hire Financial Overseer").
The meetings have been cancelled because various department heads could not attend. The meeting is now scheduled for July 15.
Although the full Senate has been unable to meet since the June 17 letter, members of the Senate, community members and members of the V.I. Department of Education have met with U.S. Department of Education officials Mark Robinson and Phil Maestri.
Noreen Michael, education commissioner, said she and members of her leadership team met with the federal officials June 27.
According to a press release from her office, Michael addressed three issues the U.S. department raised in the June 17 letter from Undersecretary Edward R. McPherson to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
First, Michael said she addressed the claim that the V.I. Education Department had not implemented an inventory policy for managing property and equipment. U.S. officials, reportedly, agreed with her that demand was not specifically part of the original compliance agreement.
Second, the V.I. officials raised questions about when documents concerning the third-party financial agent would be delivered to the V.I. department of education. The representatives indicated that Washington staffers were currently working on documents to be transmitted to the V.I. government by the second week in July.
Juel Anderson, a spokesperson for the V.I. education department, indicated that the V.I. department did not expect any dramatic impact immediately for the federal order. V.I. officials were concerned over what effect the letter would have on approval of a planning grant that was up for extension this month.
Third, V.I. officials told the federal officials that the department had made "significant progress" in meeting compliance goals, and discontinuance of federal funds would hurt that progress.
Michael went on to say that the June 17 letter had said her department had not hired an internal auditor. The department did hire one June 20.
She added, "[The] meeting also served as an opportunity for the department to once again raise issues relative to several concerns we have with untimely responses to our inquiries and requests for assistance as well as inconsistent requests made of VIDE by ED."
Michael defended her department, saying the problems that the U.S. department had were not with the V.I. Education Department, but with the V.I. Finance Department.
Michael said media stories "clearly misrepresented the department's role as a signatory of the Compliance Agreement and indicated that the department had been negligent in some way. In fact, [the federal] ED made it clear in the correspondence that 'the efforts of VIDE in implementing the requirements for the Compliance Agreement are not the impetus for the concerns expressed in this letter.'"
However, when Michael was asked last week by the Source what her department had done in recent years to assure school funds arrived in a timely manner and were spent properly, she declined to answer.
The U.S. DOE officials on the day after their meeting with Michael told senators that much of the problem they experienced was not with the local Department of Education, but with other government agencies, specifically the Department of Finance.
In the midst of the discussion over the relationship between the local and federal systems, officials announced other news affecting education in the territory.
William Frett, superintendent of schools for the St. Thomas/St. John district, retired June 30 after 37 years. Emily Carter, formerly the deputy superintendent, is serving as acting superintendent.
There have been other changes at the V.I. Department of Education, too, that have not been discussed publicly.
The assistant commissioner of education, Rita Howard, left her post in October. Belinda West-O'Neal, state director for special education, has also resigned.
In the meeting between senators and the federal officials, organized by Sen. Ronald Russell, was for senators to learn more about the problems between the U.S. Department of Education and the V.I. Department of Education.
According to a press release from Russell, Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson asked the federal representatives what was the rationale the local government gave for its non-compliance. They replied that they received no viable excuse from the local government, other than it had neglected to do certain things.
Maestri and Robinson stressed that the third-party financial management system is only a temporary solution until the local government creates its own credible system.
Sen. Roosevelt David said the meeting clarified the situation. "We are getting it from the horse's mouth. We are in a position now to say the government of the Virgin Islands failed, and these are the reasons why."
Russell said, "We have limited choices right now. There is no doubt that we need to work towards creating a credible financial management system, and I will encourage my colleagues to make funding for such a system a priority in the upcoming budget hearings."
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