Aug. 4, 2005 – Because of reoccurring problems with fund mismanagement and delays in completing summer maintenance projects, the Education Department's request for a $154 million lump sum budget for fiscal year 2006 met with strong opposition from several senators at budget hearings on Thursday.
"You're going to be punished for not performing," Sen. Louis P. Hill said. "Departments that don't perform get line-item budgets. I know that you have had some successes but I don't think that you're going to get rewarded for them. Maybe if you make a good plea then you'll be able to change some minds, but I don't think that's likely."
While Education Commissioner Noreen Michaels did not respond to Hill's remarks, she was fueled by additional commentary from Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Lorraine Berry, and Terrence "Positive" Nelson regarding low teacher certification levels, high employee costs, and a disparity in the salaries of department employees.
"How does your department expect anything to change if the structure of education hasn't changed?" David asked.
"I know that it is a mantra in the Legislature that the Department of Education is not accomplishing anything, but that's not true," Michaels replied. "We have accomplished a lot of firsts this year, and I think that our successes should be recognized."
Michaels added that significant changes had been made in the overall efficiency of the department, and that action has been taken to adequately prepare for the upcoming school year.
As to summer maintenance projects, Michaels stated the department is well under way with repairs to the parking lot at the Central High School in St. Croix and has hired a contractor to begin work on classrooms to be converted into science labs.
Although a little behind on school maintenance in the St. Thomas-St. John district, Michaels added that repairs are also beginning on classrooms damaged by a recent fire at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. "In addition, we are also moving right along with work on the new track for the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, and we are working on fixing many of the leaks and drainage problems within the territory's schools," Michaels said.
Michaels reiterated these statements for a doubtful Sen. Liston Davis, who said that recent talks with various public school teachers revealed that most of these projects have barely begun, and therefore will not be finished by the end of August when schools reopen. "In addition, the department has adopted a new policy where maintenance will be performed in the schools year round," Michaels said.
On the topic of teacher certification, Human Resources head Alscess Lewis-Brown explained that many steps were being taken to increase the amount of teachers being certified, as well as the level of teacher retention. "We are helping to pay the tuition of teachers who have to take student education courses at UVI," Lewis-Brown said. "And, we are working diligently to make sure the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act are met."
Despite her optimism, however, Lewis-Brown did admit to many challenges within this area that the department is struggling to address. "Our greatest challenge is finding qualified teachers for the special education programs before the No Child Left Behind Act, we were able to just put teachers in the special education classrooms, because we felt that we didn't have any latitude with the students." Because of the law, Lewis-Brown added that individuals hired presently must teach the subjects in which they have degrees. "That's what it means to have highly-qualified and trained professionals," Brown said.
Lewis-Brown didn't make the situation any better by stating that approximately 74 percent of the territory's teachers were not up to qualification standards. "We are continuing with our certification efforts," Michaels said. "And, we are actively recruiting locally and off-island through advertisements in many media sources."
Michaels added that she is encouraged by the fact that the number of teachers resigning from their positions over the last school year has greatly decreased. "But the problem remains that we need to acquire the funding to continue to pay our professionals. That is one advantages of having the lump sum budget we can shift money around to accommodate these costs."
As several of the salaries for local teachers and staff are federally funded, Michaels further explained that the VIDOE will not be able to receive any more money from the U.S. Department of Education until the mandates of the compliance agreement between the two entities have been fulfilled. Among the stipulations of the agreement, the VIDOE is required to put in place a third party fiduciarya person acting on behalf of the USDOE to manage the local department's financial affairsbefore any more federal grants could be awarded.
While Michaels indicated that a request for proposal for the third party fiduciary has been drafted, changes made to the document by the USDOE have to be taken into consideration before a final copy can be produced.
"On the whole, teachers are also greatly underpaid, and we have to have money within our budget to accommodate our need for personnel costs. We have even been paring down our central office personnel so that we can have money to pay the staffs in our schools," Michaels said.
Contradicting this statement, Nelson argued that teacher salaries are low because department officials are getting paid too much money. "I have always believed that the Education Department is a little top heavy a lot of the administrative positions don't even serve a function within the government. We need to shift the money to the service sector."
Nelson, as well as Sen. Neville James, added that part of the problem is that many subordinate administrators within the department are receiving salaries close to that of the commissioner herself. "The commissioner, who is responsible for supervising education on all three islands is making $85,000 a year the superintendent of St. Croix, who is only responsible for the education of one island is making $83,000 a year. Does this make any sense to you?" James asked.
As a suggestion James, along with Berry, not only called for a re-organization of the structure of the Education Department, but for the entire V.I. government is well. "It's time for a change," Berry said.
Senators present at Thursday's hearings were Norman Jn Baptiste, Berry, David, Davis, Hill, James, Nelson, and Juan Figueroa-Serville.
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