Two bills – one addressing student truancy in public schools and another addressing the process of closing a public school – failed to make it out of the Senate Committee on Education, Youth and Recreation Wednesday.
The bill relating to school attendance, absenteeism and parental responsibility was sponsored by Sen. Novelle Francis. He said it was part of his effort to break “the school to prison pipeline” in which many Virgin Islands youth get caught. Francis said his bill offers a caring way, not a punitive way, to address chronic truancy at public schools.
“We need to catch these students before they are in the pipeline,” he said.
The bill ran into opposition from the Department of Education. Alvincent Hutson II, legal counsel for DOE, said the matter was better addressed by department policy than by legislative statute.
Sen. Jean Forde, chairman of the committee, asked Hutson, “If you know this is a serious problem and it can be addressed in policy, why hasn’t it been?” He said the board had a draft policy concerning absenteeism in 2015 and it is still just a draft.
Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum said in written testimony the bill “will limit flexibility and may require unfunded mandates, potentially crippling the statute in its infancy.”
Francis said to her during the hearing, “Tell me how much money you need to fund this, I will get it for you.”
Sen. Neville James said when the Senate “provides clarity” by defining infractions and penalties, it makes it easier for DOE, the police department and the Department of Human Services to do their jobs.
The number of attendance officers the education department has and what their duties are was discussed. A department official said she believed there were five in each district. Forde had information saying there were a total of seven attendance counselors and their average salary was $25,000.
McCollum said the attendance counselors should spend most of their time in the schools working with teachers. She said the department needs a truant officer, someone who can make home visits.
Senators said they believed the intent of the bill was good but voted to hold it in committee for further discussion.
Sen. Myron Jackson introduced the bill concerning permanent closure of public schools. In recent years school closures have generated public criticism that the community was not brought into the discussion about why the school was being closed.
In introducing the bill Jackson said that in previous school closings there was a lack of meaningful engagement between the government and community members affected by the closure. He said the bill would enable a full discussion before a school closure. The bill calls for public hearings and reports from the education department outlining why the closure is necessary.
That bill, including a proposed amendment to it, ran into a snag with Hutson too. He said the department had received the amendment just two days prior to the hearing and did not have the time to analyze it. He said the amendment was hard to understand but appeared to give an entirely different meaning to the bill.
Jackson pointed out the department was just being asked to testify on the bill itself because it was not certain that the amendment would pass. However, later in the meeting he did introduce the amendment and it did pass. Senators then voted to hold it in committee for further consideration.
In McCollum’s written testimony she said, “ The department fully appreciates the weight of deciding to permanently close a school site. Accordingly, [the department] considers many factors, including but not limited to: school capacity; facility conditions; trends in enrollment; operational cost and expenses; educational program offerings; transportation; environmental conditions; and geographical location.”