Members of the Senate Committee on Education, Youth and Recreation had mixed responses to the Department of Education update on the 2018-2019 school year.
After a video highlighting a tour was shown to the committee Wednesday, Sen. Jean Forde, chairman of the committee, said, “Work to be done. A work in progress.”
Sen. Tregenza Roach said he was disappointed that the deadline for having all the schools open at the end of August was not met but, after he had toured some of the schools, he was impressed with what had been done.
The presentation by Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum was prefaced with photos showing before and after photos of the schools. Not only did some areas look improved over what they looked liked after the hurricanes; they looked better than they did before the hurricanes.
McCollum was able to assure the senators that no schools were now holding double sessions. She also said only one school now was not open and that it should be open next week.
Nine school campuses in the territory, seven on the St. Croix and two in the St. Thomas/St. John district, received temporary repairs with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds, according to McCollum, and the U.S. Department of Education also did temporary repairs in 11 schools.
The commissioner reported that all 250 temporary modular units as well as Sprung shelters, constructed on the mainland, were in the territory, with the exception of six Sprung units for the Curriculum Center.
McCollum reported her department had hired 53 teachers; 25 in the St. Croix district and 28 in the St. Thomas/St. John district. She said 16 of those new hires were recent graduates of the University of the Virgin Islands.
Senators wanted to know if the new teachers were getting the $44,000 annual salary Gov. Kenneth Mapp stipulated in an executive order and what effect that would have on teachers who had been hired in previous years and were not getting paid that much. McCollum did not know if the new salaries had been implemented yet, but Dionne Wells-Hedrington, insular superintendent for the St. Thomas/St. John district, communicated with the personnel office. Later in the meeting she reported new teachers were coming in at that salary. She also said teachers with experience were seeing salary adjustments too. Some of those pay increases would be seen in this paycheck and others would see it in the next paycheck. She said the department was still working out how to handle retroactive pay.
The senators were especially interested because the teachers were negotiating a new contract this week.
Attorney Alvincent Hutson, legal counsel for the commissioner’s office, said significant progress had recently been made in the negotiations but he was not at liberty to tell what the progress was.
Hutson also gave testimony when the committee began consider an act which would effect how secondary religious education institutions could be recognized in the territory. He said the department could support the act if it required an institute to be certified by a credible accreditation organization. He said accreditation was necessary to protect students who might attend thinking they could use their degrees for employment or to obtain higher degrees and then be disappointed.
Sherryl George, public relations officer of Bluewater Bible College, which has a five-acre campus on the extreme western end of St. Thomas, testified in favor of the act. Bluewater is a post-secondary educational institution that was established in in 1962 and is operated as an educational ministry of the Baptist Churches in the West Indies. She said when Bluewater last year was trying to get clearance from the U.S. Homeland Security Agency, they were told they needed to get proof that the local authorities recognized Bluewater as a viable business. They went to the V.I. Department of Education and asked for a certificate of operations, a certificate they had received in previous years. However, because of a law passed in 2004 the department was no longer issuing such certificates.
Although the senators noted that Bluewater has contributed significantly to the community over the years, they balked at what Sen. Novelle Francis called “opening the floodgates,” letting any school set up in the Virgin Islands and let it offer degrees that might be useless to students.
Sen. Kurt Vialet urged the administration of Bluewater to obtain certification from one of the agencies mentioned in the education department’s report. The bill was held in committee.
Bluewater is not holding classes this year. Most of its students come from off island and without Homeland Security clearance they can’t bring those students in.