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School Officials Note Progress on Campus Site Visits

Aug. 11, 2006 – School officials seemed confident Thursday as they made their third rounds of site visits to St. Thomas schools in preparation for the beginning of the school year on Aug. 28.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael; Emily Carter, Insular Superintendent of Schools for the St. Thomas-St. John District; and Louis Hughes, territorial director of plant operations and maintenance, led media through three schools on St. Thomas noting the progress and improvements being made at each one.
The biggest issue facing Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on the East End is the gymnasium, which, "some say" was not built properly, according to Carter, which has resulted in water seeping into the building causing floors to buckle and ceilings to deteriorate.
Pointing to a gaping hole in one ceiling area, Hughes said it was next to be repaired. Meanwhile, workers were busily putting a fresh coat of paint in the adjacent hallways and stairwells.
The air conditioning is also a problem, Hughes said, because personnel never understood how to use the 12 huge units that cool the cavernous building. "They don't know how to manage them," Carter said.
Hughes and Carter agreed it is not necessary to run all the units at once when smaller groups are using the facility.
When asked, Michael said mold had been a problem in the gym, but she said it had been solved.
Outside in another area of the campus, walkways have been covered, which not only makes traveling between buildings more pleasant for students when it rains but is also something Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools asked to be done as part of the school's accreditation process.
Kean was built in the early '70s. The first graduating class was in 1973. Like many of the territory's schools, it was not built with air conditioning in mind. Hughes said that's a problem when you try to retrofit air conditioning units into old walls.
Elsewhere on the campus roofs await repair and lawns remain to be groomed. Hughes said he was waiting to see what the weather was going to do before ordering the lawn cutting.
As for the leaking roofs, Carter said the work could be done even after classes started. She said Roy's Roofing wouldn't be using scaffolding when making the repairs and therefore there was no danger to students.
Despite issued left to address, Hughes said, "The schools are getting a lot done."
A few miles away at Joseph Gomez Elementary School, Principal Freida Farrow met the team at the freshly painted school that enrolls about 660 students, kindergarten through sixth-grade, in five buildings.
Though the school was closed up, Farrow said the floors had all been scrubbed and waxed in preparation for the new school year. She had a few concerns mostly about drinking fountains and one room that was leaking, but in general Farrow felt she was ready for school to begin from a maintenance standpoint.
Maintenance was a huge issue in 2005 when several schools were unable to open or stay open due to serious issues with mold and other things.
Michael said a contract had been let with HTA Caribbean – to be paid for with Public Finance Authority funds – for ongoing regular maintenance of all the territory's schools.
Michael said the mold problem had gotten out of hand because of unprecedented rainfall over the last few years. She said routine cleaning efforts had been made to eradicate the mold, but "if it doesn't stop raining, mold doesn't go away."
She said realistically it would take three to five years "to see a huge difference" in the schools' conditions.
She said it was like a manual for a car, each school had a metaphoric manual that would guide the contractors on how to schedule the maintenance for each particular property.
At Emanuel Benjamin Oliver Elementary School a couple of miles away in Tutu, a gaping hole with broken pieces of concrete covering what was once a floor stands where bathroom facilities once existed for both students and teachers.
Hughes explained that this section of the school had begun to sink, causing "big separations in the walls," making the area structurally unsound and unsafe. Hughes said contractors were in the process of rebuilding the floor with "six-inch lifts" that he said would secure the foundation.
Hughes couldn't say what caused the sinking, but he said he was prepared to dig down as far as necessary to be sure they were on solid ground before starting the reconstruction of the foundation.
The school, which won an award for its airy, open design, has the opposite air conditioning problem. It was built for air conditioning. Carter, who is intimately acquainted with the school where she served as principal for nine years, said the buildings were not situated to capture the tradewinds, so when the air conditioning goes out it's hot inside the classrooms.
Oliver Elementary was built in 1975 and accommodates 700 students. However, at one point, Carter said, 850 students attended the school that sits high atop hill overlooking old Tutu and the ocean beyond.
She said at one time the school faced serious vandalism problems, but no longer. She said people in the surrounding residential neighborhood were quick to call her or the police if they saw inappropriate activity around the school
Not so at some of the other schools, Michael said. She said vandals attack Ulla F. Muller Elementary in Contant almost every night, necessitating almost daily repainting.
She made an impassioned plea to the community, asking them "to be outraged" by these acts and to call the police.
Vandalism, rain, mold, aging structures are the nagging – sometimes overwhelming – problems facing a huge, complex territorial school system that spans three islands, separated in one case by 40 miles of water.
Gesturing toward the large grassy field that lies between two of the five buildings at Gomez School, Hughes said, "Think about the amount of real estate we have compared to the portion of the budget we get."

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