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HomeNewsArchivesSenate Nixes School Calendar Fix in Special Session

Senate Nixes School Calendar Fix in Special Session

The V.I. Legislature declined to repeal legislation starting next school year two weeks earlier during a special session Gov. John deJongh Jr. called for that purpose Friday. Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone said after the vote, at the close of the session, that other legislation to address the problem would instead be considered in committee April 7 and at a regular legislative session April 14-15.

DeJongh called the special session earlier this week, saying two laws needed to be repealed because they are an unfunded mandate that obligates the government to spend millions of dollars it does not have at a time when the government is also facing a completely unresolved $40 million budget deficit. In his letter calling the session, deJongh said that he and Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, who is also calling for the change, are concerned that the school system needs to finalize its calendar by the end of April and that acting through the regular committee process might take too long.

One of the two laws, Act 7369, approved in 2012 over deJongh’s veto, moves up the beginning of the school year by two weeks so that classes and exams can end before Christmas and the Crucian Christmas Carnival. The other, Act 7484, simply delays the original deadline for compliance to the 2014-15 school year.

The goal of the legislation was to have students finish the semester before going on break, instead of returning after two weeks off to take final exams.

Teachers unions and the Education Department want to delay or prevent the change because of concerns about teachers working two more weeks one year and about the initial cost and logistics of the change coming in the midst of a budget crisis.

"This impacts the summer break for workers who work for 10 months but have their pay prorated" over the full 12 months, Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory testified to the Committee of the Whole on Friday. It also affects the ability of the school system to schedule professional development days and creates other logistical problems, she said, but the cost and labor issues are the big obstacles.

The teachers and supervisors unions’ contracts stipulates a 60-day vacation period, while the 2012 law would reduce that by 20 days this year and obligate the government to pay for the extra work time in a lump sum before the school year begins. This would cost about $5.4 million, all at once, at a time when the department is already struggling with cuts, cannot hire all the teachers it needs and has no good way to pay for new textbooks, Frett-Gregory said.

St. Croix teachers union President Rosa Soto-Thomas and St. Thomas-St. John teachers union President Vernelle deLagarde similarly said the new calendar would violate their members’ contracts. They also questioned how the government would pay them when there is a large budget deficit and expressed concern they would not get paid and it would be added to the pile of retroactive pay due their members.

"The question is will the government be able to handle the implementation cost, considering its current budget shortfall," said Soto-Thomas. "On account of the deficit of $40.5 million, one would think the thing to do would be to repeal it in its entirety," she said.

Union officials also questioned whether any data actually supported the assumption that ending the school year before Christmas break would improve academic performance.

V.I. Parent Teacher Student Association President Richard Muhammed testified in favor of keeping the new calendar and starting school earlier, saying that the absence of data did not change the "obvious truth" that having a two-week Christmas break before exams would hurt student performance. He listed the senators who voted for the calendar change who might now consider reversing, naming Hansen, Malone and Sen. Terrence “Positive” Nelson as senators who originally voted to change the calendar. Malone and Nelson ultimately voted against the legislation.

Hansen said she felt betrayed because she had understood the unions supported the change. She asked the union representatives if members were polled to see what their views were and the two representatives said neither union was polled initially, but both were polled about the repeal, and both unions support repeal. On St. Croix, a majority of teachers and a large majority of elementary school teachers support repeal, while a majority of high school teachers favor keeping the new schedule, Soto-Thomas said.

Separately Nelson and Sen. Judi Buckley both asked all the testifiers to say if they supported the calendar change in principle, if money were no object. Education officials all said they supported the change if money were available, but the two union representatives said they would still oppose the change so long as their members were still owed retroactive pay.

Several senators, including Nelson, Sens. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly and Tregenza Roach, floated proposals to move money around, defunding some priorities to come up with enough to cover the increased cost of the calendar. Hansen said unless the overall budget deficit was solved, that would not help.

"Under law, you have the authority to decide what to pay for then?" Hansen asked Office of Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb.

"That is correct," Gottlieb replied.

Hansen said, "I am not going to fool teachers into thinking that if we don’t repeal this, they are going to get paid. Can you make it clear here today (this $5.4 million for salaries) is not something you are going to be paying, so long as this $40 million deficit remains?" Hansen asked.

"That is correct," Gottlieb said.

Voting no on the legislation repealing changes to the school calendar were Buckley, Malone, Nelson, Rivera-O’Reilly, Sens. Diane Capehart, Kenneth Gittens, Clifford Graham, Myron Jackson, Sammuel Sanes and Janette Millin Young. Voting yea were Hansen, Roach, Sens. Donald Cole and Clarence Payne. Sen. Craig Barshinger was absent.

Bills and amendments addressing the same topic will be heard by the Education Committee on April 7 and the Senate should be able to vote on some legislation regarding this subject in session April 14 and 15, Malone said after the vote.

Government House had no comment on the vote.

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to clarify that some of the senators V.I. Parent Teacher Student Association President Richard Muhammed singled out for voting for the new school calendar but considering amending it, subsequently voted against the legislation Muhammed opposed.

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