July 20, 2005 – I was observing the Senate session recently (7/15/05) while they were meeting as a Committee of the Whole. They were reviewing the crisis in the Virgin Islands educational system and the failure of the local government to fulfill its part in a Compliance Agreement with the federal government.
As I observed the testifiers: Clive Mills, director of OMB, Commissioner Bernice Turnbull of the Department of Finance, Noreen Michael, Commissioner of Education, attorney Judith Gomez, Chairperson of the Board of Education, Commissioner Marc Biggs and Mary Moorhead representing Central High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association. The testifiers were deliberate in their presentation, for the most part. They were very passionate about their task. However, there was one commissioner who failed to exhibit enough knowledge of operations of the department that is their responsibility. Even Gomez, while she gave an eloquent presentation, acknowledged not to have the full understanding of the statutory responsibilities of the board and promised the senators to research the statutory provisions and act accordingly. Mary Moorhead expressed her frustration with the pace of the Department of Education in bringing the Central High School on St. Croix up to standard and expressed her dissatisfaction with the performance and, in most cases, the lack of performance by the officials in the department and the governor himself.
I am again convinced that there are too many people who do not fully commit themselves to their responsibilities, whether they are elected or appointed. It is expected that everyone given an assignment or a job should prepare himself or herself to fulfill their task to the best of their abilities. If they fail to study and prepare themselves for the task, if they fail to understand the requirement of the task, they are cheating their employer.They should inquire of themselves if they are really equipped to efficiently carry out their task. If they assume the responsibility with no intentions of fulfilling the requirements and performing in an efficient and satisfactory manner, then they are cheating the taxpayers, the public. They are being dishonest.
The senators, for a change, were quite professional for the most part, in their questioning of the testifiers. They seem to have done some homework, particularly the rookie senator from St. Croix, Juan Figueroa-Serville. In his research he obtained some information from the U.S. Department of Education, which he shared with his colleagues and the testifiers. At one point in the session, Clive Mills made a statement that offended Senate President Lorraine L. Berry, when he asserted that in the past he had given information to the Senate only to have them use it for ends not intended. His statement was in response to the senator's allegation that the administration has refused to provide adequate information to the Senate even when requested. Sen. Terrence Nelson also expressed his displeasure with Mills' assertion and asked that he retract it. Mills did not retract his statement that was found offensive to certain senators.
Marc Biggs, the commissioner of the department of property and procurement, expressed his displeasure at allegations by some senators that there have been cover-up and corruption by members of the administration. He protested that he was included in that group that was supposedly involved in acts of corruption and cover-up. He asked the senators to treat him as an individual and to review his record of performance. Commissioner Bernice Turnbull was very deliberate in her statement when asked why the financial information system was not upgraded or fully implemented. She reported that the human element was the principal factor why the system is not being upgraded nor fully implemented. She said it takes time for the personnel to become familiar with a new system and make the necessary adjustments to implement it. Director Mills echoed the same explanation as to why the system is not being fully implemented or upgraded. Commissioner Biggs stated his department has implemented the information system but it is the other departments of the executive branch that have not come on board and he has no control over that fact.
I was not able to follow the afternoon session after lunch. But if the morning session were any indication of what to expect from the hearing, I would say not much would be changed. Except for the mandated requirement of hiring a third party fiduciary, who will oversee the use of federally assigned monies to the Department of Education. I believe everything else would remain the same because of the mindset of the players, including the governor and the Senate.
J. J. Estemac
St. Thomas, VI
Editor's note: J.J. Estemac is a former St. Thomas police officer.
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