July 14, 2005 On Friday, the full Senate will consider what some have called a crisis in the V.I. education system and others have called a fiasco.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael has been under fire since mid-June, when a letter sent from Edward R. McPherson, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education, to Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said the V.I. government had to hire a fiduciary agent before any more federal funds for education would be issued.
Since the McPherson letter, Michael, who will testify Friday, has been trying to demonstrate that she and her department are not responsible for the fix the local education system is in with the federal government.
She sent out a press release June 30, after she had met with federal officials. In it was the statement "The McPherson letter has been the focus of media stories over the past week which 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, 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 (McPherson's) letter."
However, her efforts to distance herself and her department from the problem with the federal government have met little success.
A July 12 editorial in the V.I. Daily News titled "The Education Fiasco" said, "Dr. Michael has lost control of the Education Department — if ever she had control. In either case, it is time for her to step aside or start working with the feds."
Michael, in an interview with the Source on Wednesday at Education Department offices in Christiansted, said that editorial was "contrary" to the facts.
First, she pointed out that the compliance agreement, signed in 2002, is between the V.I. government and the U.S. Department of Education, not between the V.I. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education. She noted that her signature on the agreement is just one of 10 V.I. officials.
When asked whether, since her name was the top signature on the page, that would not ultimately make her responsible for the requirements of the compliance agreement being met, she said, "No."
She said that even if the Education Department did everything perfectly, there were still things that had to be done by other departments Management and Budget, Finance and Property and Procurement.
As an example, she said if everyone at the Education Department signed off correctly on a purchase order, but it was then classified incorrectly at the Finance Department, that was a problem for the federal government. She said when the federal government auditors come down, "They audit the Finance Department, not the Education Department."
She had no specifics but said meetings had occurred between representatives in her department and those in the Finance Department to correct problems that might occur. She added that financial procedures and records in the Education Department were "not mirrored" in the Finance Department.
In the interview Wednesday, she emphasized that USDOE noted that the VIDOE had accomplished many of the educational benchmarks set out in the compliance agreement.
Two areas she reports the Education Department have done well in were student assessments and academic content standards.
"Academic content standards had to come first," she said. "We did a lot of work in that area."
Although standardized tests such as the Iowa Basic Skills have been administered in the past, they were not administered in a systematic way as they are now. She said tests are now broken down to cover three groups average students, students where English is a second language and students with cognitive difficulties.
Michael said what has been put in place has helped educators get a better idea of how students at each grade level should be performing.
She said the McPherson letter didn't surprise her.
In a Senate hearing in early April, she was asked whether the federal grants were in jeopardy; she answered that they were not, but they would probably be managed by someone else. (See "Michael: Education Dept. Meets Compliance").
Michael became acting commissioner of education in April 2002, when Turnbull fired Ruby Simmonds from the position shortly after the territory's appeal of the loss of accreditation for three high schools was rejected. The Senate confirmed Michael in December of that year.
The 47-year-old is a graduate of Charlotte Amalie High School and the then-College of the Virgin Islands. She received her doctorate in education from the University of Illinois in 1985. After teaching for two years in the territory, she moved to the mainland and taught on the college level. She returned to the Virgin Islands in 1991and joined the Education Department.
Besides the criticism concerning the compliance agreement, Sen. Liston Davis has also criticized her recently for the department's handling of summer repairs to the school. He has said if she can't handle the job, she should step down.
The compliance agreement was signed in September 2002. It addressed four areas: program planning, design and evaluation; financial management; human capital; and property management and procurement.
Michael has reported to the Senate significant progress in the human capital area, and federal officials have agreed.
The compliance agreement can be seen in its entirety at www.doe.vi.
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