After multiple town hall meetings, a public comment period, and much spirited debate, senators are scheduled to vote Friday on whether to ratify a land swap between the V.I. government and the National Park Service to provide a site for a new K-12 public school on St. John.
The Senate will take up the matter when it convenes as the Committee of the Whole and then in legislative session on Friday starting at 10 a.m. The meetings are livestreamed on the Legislature website and its Facebook page. Lawmakers were originally scheduled to vote on the land swap on July 20 but after two hours of debate — and eight hours the week before — postponed the decision for 45 working days so they could do more research.
Under the legislation, Bill 35-0112, the V.I. government would exchange Whistling Cay — a 17.97-acre island off Mary Point on the north shore of St. John that is owned by the territory — for an 11.3-acre site in Estate Catherineberg owned by the National Park. The cay, which lies within the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park, is a wildlife sanctuary and contains historic ruins of an old guardhouse.
The Catherineberg property was donated to the VINP in 1968 by the Bishop family, more than 20 years after the park was established. Unlike most of the land within the park, the deed for the Bishop property states that the land can be used for a public purpose if approved by the Secretary of the Interior.
The site would provide enough space for a K-12 school, a hurricane shelter, and a multipurpose center. According to the terms of the agreement, the National Park Service will also make an equalizing payment of $210,000 to the government of the Virgin Islands for the difference in value between the two properties. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has committed to fund 90 percent of the cost to construct the school.
Thirty percent of the school has been provisionally designed and could accommodate around 460 students, Education Department Architect Chaneel Callwood said at a town hall in July. Of the 11-acre site, five acres will be used immediately for school construction, three will be held in reserve for future use, and three acres with historical ruins — including a village where enslaved ancestors lived and a burial ground — will be preserved as “sacred space.”
St. John is the only island in the territory without a public high school. Currently, its students in grades 9-12 must take a ferry to St. Thomas, except for those who are home-schooled or attend a private high school in Cruz Bay.
The Catherineberg property has been under discussion as a site for a new school for at least 30 years and has been proposed by the Department of Education as a serious possibility since 2020.
A land swap is necessary because the National Park Service is prohibited from selling or donating park land without congressional approval. But many ancestral St. Johnians have said their families have already given up enough land to the federal government to create the Virgin Islands National Park.
Many, like former Island Administrator Julian Harley and retired UVI professor Gilbert Sprauve, said at the town hall in July that the NPS should donate the land.
Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington, who grew up on St. John, urged acceptance of the proposed legislation.
“The stars are aligned. The historic moment is now. We cannot let this chance slip through our hands,” she said.
Senators will also consider two zoning use variances on Friday, including for a scenic outlook with a restaurant, bar and gift shop on Mafolie Hill in Estate Elizabeth on St. Thomas; and another for a fuel storage facility consisting of a maintenance/storage building and a parking/truck storage structure in Estate Bovoni.