The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded the V.I. Education Department a $75 million grant for the replacement of the Jane E. Tuitt Elementary School on St. Thomas, which was badly damaged in Hurricane Maria, Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett announced Thursday.
Under new “Prudent Replacement Standards” adopted with the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, FEMA will fund the rebuild of the school, located in Savan, rather than using its usual 50 percent rule that dictates that substantial damage is determined only when repair costs exceed 50 percent of the market value of a property, said Plaskett.
It’s a formula that Plaskett said she pushed hard to be applied in this case, and that FEMA has so far used for only one other school in the U.S. Virgin Islands — the Arthur A. Richards Junior High School on St. Croix. It will be the territory’s first new school in 27 years, Education officials said in August.
“This funding is authorized under Section 406 of the Robert T. Stafford Act. I fought to make sure that for the first time FEMA would utilize the prudent replacement standard for Virgin Islands hurricane recovery projects, meaning that this school will be built back not as it was before the storm but in a resilient manner with current industry standards,” Plaskett said in her announcement.
“The Prudent Replacement Standard (from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018) includes a specific provision requiring FEMA to use ‘prudence’ instead of its standard 50 percent rule to approve replacement of badly damaged facilities in the [act’s] critical services sectors,” she said.
The grant totals $75,565,781 in federal funding for the school — dedicated in 1959 in honor of lifelong educator Jane E. Tuitt, according to a history of Virgin Islands schools compiled by Ruth Moolenaar.
Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington welcomed the news on Thursday.
“The recent announcement of FEMA approving Jane E. Tuitt as a full replacement was wonderful news for the territory. Our facilities are over 40 years old, and the department has been doing its best to keep our buildings operable; however, the time has come for new facilities and new learning spaces that align to 21st century teaching and learning,” she said.
“We will move forward with the development of our RFPs to procure service from an architectural firm to design our new vision for that site. Community input is valued and will be included in the final product. The face of education is changing for the good of our children. Thank you for your patience and partnership to get this accomplished,” the commissioner said.
However, Plaskett said more work remains to realize adequate funding for the territory’s many other projects in the wake of Irma and Maria, the twin Category 5 hurricanes of September 2017 that devastated the territory’s infrastructure.
“Despite issuing a BBA Implementation Policy on September 11, 2020, which includes the following Prudent Replacement guidance, FEMA has only completed a Prudent Replacement Evaluation of one facility — Arthur A. Richards Junior High School — in the past 15 months and zero in the last eight months since the approval of AAJHS in April of 2020. As of mid-December 2020, FEMA has a backlog of more than 60 additional Prudent Replacements under consideration, including schools, hospitals and homes for the aged,” said Plaskett.
“I am pleased that the appropriated funds will go toward the rebuilding of these institutions, especially our schools, but there is still more work to be done. We are proud of the work of the Office of Disaster Recovery and the V.I. Department of Education for obtaining the funding and look forward to working with them to ensure the funds are fully utilized,” she said.