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Board of Education Wants Answers About Third-Party Fiduciary Agreement

Aug. 26, 2006 — The V.I. Board of Education voted to subpoena Office of Management and Budget Director Ira Mills after he failed to show up to a board meeting Saturday. Mills was supposed to speak to the board about whether a third-party fiduciary had been selected for the Department of Education.
According to Carol Henneman, the board's new executive director, Mills called at 5 p.m. Friday afternoon to say he would not be attending the meeting. However, he also relayed that a contract with a third-party fiduciary had been signed and subsequently approved by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
At a recent Senate budget hearing, Mills indicated that the U.S. Department of Education had already given its stamp of approval to the firm selected by the Third-Party Fiduciary Selection Committee–a group of government officials from the departments of Education, Health, Human Services, Finance and Property and Procurement.
Up to last week, however, neither Mills nor members of the committee had released the name of the firm selected to render those services.
During Saturday's meeting, Henneman indicated that the name of the firm is still not going to be released, even though a contract has been executed. "Mr. Mills also indicated that he would not yet be releasing the name of the firm that has been selected," she said, to the surprise of board members. "He said he is waiting for the governor to make that announcement."
Henneman's statements raised the ire of several board members, who said the board should be given the name of the selected company.
"I have serious concerns with the decision not to release the name of the firm," attorney Debra Smith-Watlington, the board's secretary, said. "By law, the board is obligated to monitor the federal funds administered by the Department of Education and has to approve any and all plans that involve the cooperation of the federal government."
Watlington added that the board is a signatory to the compliance agreement issued in 2002 by the U.S. Department of Education, which mandated that the V.I. Education Department engage the services of a third-party fiduciary to manage its federal funds. "So by law, we should be privy to the details of the contract," she said.
Watlington brought forth the motion to subpoena Mills and all documents relating to the third-party fiduciary process, which received support from a majority of the board's members. However, board member Keith Richards and board chair Judy Gomez opposed the motion, noting that Turnbull should be the one to announce the selection of the firm.
"When contracts are signed, there is a whole process that has to be followed," Richards said. "The contract may still be going through that process. So, it's a bit premature at this time to subpoena Mr. Mills and ask that the name of the firm be released."
Gomez agreed and voted against the motion, along with Richards. Voting in favor of the subpoena were board members Shawn Gibson, Terrence D. Joseph, Jorge "Tito" Galiber, Nandi Sekou, Oswin Sewer and Watlington.
Board members were more encouraged by a presentation given during the meeting by Education Commissioner Noreen Michael, who said that the department is working to obligate approximately $23.3 million in federal funds awarded for fiscal year 2004. Michael has explained in numerous Senate hearings that while the money has been awarded to the department by the federal government, it cannot be released to Education until the third-party fiduciary is in place.
However, Education still has to obligate the money by Sept. 30, or it reverts back to the federal government. To expedite the process, money has been borrowed from the local government against the grant and will be reimbursed by the federal government once the third-party fiduciary is up and running.
During Saturday's meeting, Michael said the department has obligated about $13 million of the federal dollars to date and is aggressively working with the Department of Finance to claim the rest of the money. She added that the department would "definitely" be able to obligate all funds by the end of next month.
While board members had few questions about Education's ability to actually obligate the funds, they were concerned that the department would not be able to meet a recent mandate passed by the board to have year-round English and Math classes in local public schools.
According to Jewel Ross-Brathwaite, deputy superintendent of schools for St. Croix, the department is having trouble addressing this policy because of a lack of teachers, especially English teachers, and classroom space.
Michael added that because of block scheduling, advanced placement classes in some of the high schools would be impacted by the addition of another course. She said that because the policy was just approved by the board, it would be better for the department to address the issue during the next school year.
Board members asked that a meeting be set up with Michael and the various high school principals to discuss the policy and its impact on the current use of block scheduling.
Before going into executive session at the end of the meeting, the board went quickly through the rest of Saturday's agenda, and also heard reports from several of its committee members.
The board also approved the certifications of 32 new teachers–18 from the St. Croix district, and 14 from the St. Thomas-St. John district.
All board members were present during Saturday's meeting.
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