An exchange between the V.I. Port Authority and the Department of Education could unlock a new funding source for maintaining public schools in the U.S. Virgin Islands after the Finance Committee advanced Bill No. 34-0078 on Thursday.
The bill was proposed by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory and is intended to transfer the former Addelita Cancryn Junior High School property to the V.I. Port Authority to repurpose it as a marine transshipment and storage facility. In exchange for the property, the bill says the Port Authority would be responsible for constructing a 25,000-square-foot facility for the Department of Education to use for the school lunch program, complete with an adjacent parking lot.
In addition to constructing the building, the bill stipulates that the Port Authority would be responsible for remitting 50 percent of the income generated from the commercial use of the property to put into what legislators are calling the Education Maintenance Fund.
Frett-Gregory said the funds would be used strictly for maintaining school property and that the legislation is timely because once the new school facilities are complete, they will be sustained.
Funding school maintenance has long been a priority for senators, but Frett-Gregory said the new opportunity transcends the benefits for the territory’s students, extending to the entire territory should the bill be signed into law.
“We have the unique opportunity to be the transshipment hub for the Windward and Leeward Islands. If we don’t act, countries like St. Martin are just waiting in the winds to capture this market,” Frett-Gregory said. “The world has changed. I would venture to say 99 percent if not more of what we consume … comes from off-island. If we don’t act now some other Caribbean country will benefit from this opportunity.”
Port Authority Executive Director Carlton Dowe said the entity was in favor of the legislation, citing a “tremendous need” for expanding the marine cargo terminal which has “extraordinary potential” of becoming the leading transshipment port for the eastern Caribbean.
Dowe said the port already serves as a transshipment hub, with equal amounts of shipping containers that have goods staying in the territory as being transshipped, but should the legislation be signed into law, the port’s capacity would grow and benefit all residents.
The newly established transshipment hub could “translate into more revenues for the territory and more access to shipment for the people of the Virgin Islands in our port capacity,” Dowe said. “The integration of the former school site will greatly enhance our capacity for more shipping activities, capacity to add shippers and to expand the flow of commerce from the United States and the world.”
Department of Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin also supported the legislation, having testified “for decades the Department of Education has requested a separate funding source for the maintenance and upkeep of our aged schools. This bill is a step in the right direction as it is a start to provide such funding.”
The legislation was advanced to the Rules and Judiciary Committee with a unanimous vote.
Separately, Bill No. 34-0084, impacting the Government Employees’ Retirement System, was held in committee. After the vote to hold the bill, Sen. Kurt Vialet said he would be getting his colleagues together and go over the entire Government Employees’ Retirement System in one room, at one time.
Sens. Marvin Blyden, Samuel Carrion, Frett-Gregory, Dwayne DeGraff, Javan James Sr., Janelle Sarauw and Kurt Vialet were present for the hearing. Additional non-committee members also attended the hearing.