Aug. 25, 2005 – A $1.4 million request from Board of Education representatives met with little concern from senators at budget hearings Thursday except in the areas of teacher certification and scholarship funds.
Teacher certification was an important concern for senators, as the Board of Education stressed the need to comply with both the compliance agreement between U.S. and V.I. Education departments and the No Child Left Behind Act. "We do have teachers who don't meet certification requirements, and that's troubling to us. But we're working tirelessly to get them certified," said Tregenza Roach, the board's executive director.
Under the compliance agreement, the board agreed to work with the VIDOE to expedite the certification of teachers in the territory. This means that at least 280 teachers should have met full student teaching requirements before the agreement ends in September. In addition, No Child Left Behind mandates suggest that teachers be certified to teach in their specific areas of study. "We have had mixed levels of success with this process," said Judy Gomez, the board's chair. "In 2003, the first year of the compliance agreement, we certified more than 300 teachers. However, in the following year, we certified only 116 candidates."
For this year, Gomez said that the Board has certified 77 candidates so far and is actively looking to put in place alternative routes to certification for new and veteran teachers. "I'm almost positive that we're going to meet compliance agreement requirements for 2005 our alternative method of certification, for example, specifically provides for veteran teachers who were hired prior to 1997."
Gomez explained that because of the significant number of years spent teaching within the system, teachers hired before 1997 don't have to fulfill student teaching requirements laid out in compliance agreement. Teachers hired after 1997 must do so.
"To help with this, the board has partnered with the Education Department and UVI to help with courses offered to take care of those requirements," Gomez said.
She also underlined the need for extra money to be provided for scholarship funds, including Legislative grants administered by the board to students and professionals going through college. With 72 applicants this year, Gomez requested $304,300.
Under these grants, special money is supposed to be awarded to valedictorians and salutatorians who want to pursue a course not offered by UVI. While a special section in the VI Code stipulates that scholarships be awarded in the amount of $6,000 for valedictorians and $4,000 annually for salutatorians, Gomez said the Legislature hasn't adhered to the provision since it was added in 1998. Instead, the board is only able to give $1,000 to valedictorians and $700 to salutatorians.
"We need to provide the money which is supposed to be set aside for these grants," Gomez said. "There are children whose education is suffering because we're not doing it."
Board representatives further requested $62,000 for the territorial loan and scholarship program. While funded by money collected from student loans administered by the board, this program, according to Gomez, needs an extra $800,000 to provide financial relief to 685 applicants. "All the youngsters applying for these scholarships get a part of the money, so we need more to give them The cost of college is steadily increasing, and it seems that we've only been able to give them enough to cover their airfare or to buy a book. This needs to change."
Gomez also said that although the Economic Development Commission is supposed to pay the board all penalty money collected from beneficiaries who are delinquent in reporting to the authority, it is hard to count as a funding source. "If people are compliant with their rules and regulations, then there is no money to collect."
Senators agreed that such an expense is worthwhile, but some were concerned that board members were each granted "discretionary" fund money to distribute to applicants of their own choosing, without the consultation of the entire body. "This is not something that I would approve of," Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson said. "I already have a conspiracy theory sort of mind and I think that with the board members each being given money to award scholarships to whoever they want to allows them to pick their family members or other people they know. That's not fair."
Roach said board members each have approximately $7,000 to award at their own discretion a practice Gomez said was more than fair. "It's a small island… Inevitably, you're going to run across an applicant who is a family member. But if that person is in need, then why would you hold that money back? You're talking about $7,000 here something to give a child to go to college. Not millions of dollars."
A supplemental budget request will make its way through the Legislature after Oct. 1, or after the final executive budget has been approved. In addition to the scholarship money, the board asked for $25,000 to conduct an internal audit. Gomez said these figures were not included in the fiscal year presentation because the board could not exceed the ceiling established by the Office of Management and Budget for 2006.
The Finance Committee also received disturbing testimony from the Horseracing Commission, which presented a budget request of $92,610.
"Most of the documents that this committee requested from us for today's meeting were unable to be submitted due to the following: They were either nonexistent, due to poor file management, discarded and/or destroyed by the staff at the department under which the commission falls," Horseracing Commissioner Norma Pickard-Samuel said.
Pickard-Samuel added that because these were important government documents, she believed their destruction was deliberate. "No one destroys things like that without a purpose."
Although senators found it difficult to approve the commission's budget request, Pickard-Samuel made assurances that the system would improve under her watch. "I've only been commissioner for a year, but I can say that this kind of activity won't continue."
Finally, senators approved several fund transfers proposed by OMB director Ira Mills, including:
–$10,000 to the Division of Personnel;
–$600,000 to the Internal Revenue Bureau;
–$39,901 to the V.I. Election System;
–$28,949.71 to the Office of Veterans Affairs;
–$90,845 to the Adjutant General;
–$20,000 to the Board of Education;
— and $41,500 to the Department of Agriculture.
The committee held transfer requests for Public Works, the Waste Management Authority and the Department of Health until the next scheduled committee meeting.
Senators present at budget hearings on Wednesday were Nelson, Norman Jn Baptiste, Liston Davis, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Juan Figueroa-Serville, and Usie Richards.
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