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St. Croix Senate Candidates Go Face to Face with Arthur Richards Students

Arthur A. Richards Principal Kurt Vialet addresses students during the school's V.I. Senate candidate.Arthur Richards Jr. High School students saw most St. Croix senatorial candidates face to face, posing them tough questions about issues affecting their school and community – while learning first-hand about civics and elections – during a forum put on by the school’s Social Studies Department on Thursday morning.

All St. Croix senatorial candidates to the 30th Legislature of the Virgin Islands were invited to the forum.

Two panels of around 10 candidates each appeared before the students, with seventh-graders asking questions of the first group and eighth-graders questioning the second.

"This in itself is a lesson in civics for our students," Principal Kurt Vialet said as the second panel prepared to take questions.

Students stood up and asked the candidates questions put together by students in the Social Studies Club.

"The Arthur A. Richards Junior High School has, in recent years, lost its drafting, electrical, band, music and business teachers, and the Department of Education has no plan to replace these programs and the teachers who staffed them,eighth-grader D’Andra Baptiste said. “Our successful FBLA club is also in danger of dying because the teacher who worked as a substitute for two years was not hired to fill this vacancy,” she continued, asking: “If elected, what would you do to reverse this trend?"

"I will meet with the Department of Education and Board of Education so we can look at these problems," said Pedro "Pei" Cruz, a former mid-island administrator for St. Croix and longtime manager of the island’s Glidden paint store.

Cruz said he would support programs to "help students improve and learn at their own pace," and would support more community libraries.

"I would promote legislation for curricular and extra-curricular activities in the schools," said Kenneth "Kenny" Gittens, a 20-year veteran of the V.I. Police Department with a master’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Columbia Southern University.

"I think a line item budget for the Department of Education, that is so key," said Percival "Tahemah" Edwards, a member of V.I. Farmers in Action, hall monitor at St. Croix Educational Complex, and long-time civic activist, currently pursuing a bachelor’s at the University of the Virgin Islands.

With the U.S. Department of the Interior holding many of the purse strings to federal funding for the territory, Edwards said, "every school and agency has to have its own grant writing."

When asked what the candidates would do to improve access to health care in the territory, Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly, a two-term incumbent, said many residents leave the territory to seek health care elsewhere, taking about $50 million out of the economy.

"If we can improve our facilities, people will feel more confident,” O’Reilly said, adding that those $50-plus million each year would remain in the territory. Given that both Spanish and English are spoken on St. Croix, there is potential to attract medical tourism from throughout the region, she said.

Sen. Neville James, a long-time incumbent, suggested a second hospital would make Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital better, through competition, while also giving patients more options.

Samuel Baptiste, a former program coordinator for Hovensa, suggested more could be done with existing resources, by consolidating and streamlining services offered variously by JFL, the Health Department and Human Services.

"In addition to that, the Frederiksted Health Care Center, I think, is in a position to pick up a lot of care," Baptiste suggested.

Another student asked whether the candidates would support changing the qualifications for office, noting that teachers, who have less power, must have at least a bachelor’s degree.

"I believe a senator should really have at least a bachelor’s degree, believe it or not," said George Cyril, a past owner of several stores, a trucking company and the former Global Metal Recycling on St. Croix. Cyril has a master’s degree in public administration from California State University, Bakersfield.

"Education is very important but I don’t believe there should be a minimum of a bachelor’s, and I’ll tell you why," said Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen. "Many of your parents do not have bachelor’s degrees. Are you trying to say your parents who may not have had a bachelor’s are not good enough?" she said, listing some past senators who did not have college degrees.

Hansen is a long-time senator, currently on her first term back in office after a four-year hiatus during which she was charged with several public corruption offenses, acquitted, then convicted of several counts of failure to file income tax returns.

"If senators attempt to put that in the law, it would be declared unconstitutional because there would not be a level playing field – not everyone can afford higher education," said Arthur Joseph, who is president of the St. Croix Police Benevolent Association and a police officer. "But that does not mean you don’t want to encourage senators to get those degrees," he said.

Throughout the forum, candidates made their case, urging the students to tell their parents to vote for them, passing out campaign literature and repeating their ballot number at every opportunity. Hansen passed out the most material, until by the end of the forum, nearly every Arthur Richards student could be seen sporting a red nylon book bag with Hansen’s name and ballot number, and her multi-page glossy campaign brochure in hand.

Asked afterwards what they thought about the forum, some students said they were somewhat impressed by the candidates and learned a lot.

Eighth-grader LeeAnn Knight said, "I learned the senators are ordinary people like you or me.”

“If I were 18 I would like to vote for Chucky Hansen," Knight said.

Seventh-grader Tre’Von Porter said the senators knew way more than he previously thought. “I think it’s good they studied about the community when running to be a senator or a senator at large," Porter said.

"I felt nervous and happy at the same time, because we had to stand up before everybody and speak," said Shakia Hinten, one of the seventh-graders who posed questions to the candidates.

Some were less sanguine about the candidate.

"You should take a picture of all the torn up fliers on the ground," said Urydia Andreas, an eighth-grader, showing a torn up Hansen flyer. "You can’t put the same people back in office because they will just do the same thing again. They just want to be reelected," Andreas said.

The forum was put together by the Arthur A. Richards Jr. High Social Studies Club as a civics exercise, under the guidance of Social Studies Chair Joseph Chapman.

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