Education Officials Report Teacher Exodus, Hiring Hurdles

Education Commissioner nominee Racquel Berry-Benjamin testifies before the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development Wednesday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Education Commissioner nominee Racquel Berry-Benjamin testifies before the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development Wednesday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

In the last five months, 91 teachers have left the V.I. school system and 54 teachers have been on sick leave since the start of the school year, Education Commissioner nominee Racquel Berry-Benjamin testified Wednesday to the Senate as she led a team of Education officials highlighting the Education Department’s staffing crisis.

“As is evident from the data, teacher shortages continue to plague the [Department of Education],” Berry-Benjamin said. “As such, the Human Resources Division engages in continuous recruitment throughout the year.”

Berry-Benjamin testified before the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Sen. Stedmann Hodge (D-STT), on the current operations of the Department of Education and the state of the territory’s public school system.

The territory’s total enrollment stands at 10,752 students – 5,384 on St. Croix and 5,368 on St. Thomas and St. John – served by a total 2,424 employees territorially, including ancillary staff.

According to Berry-Benjamin, as of Feb. 11 the Education Department had a total of 123 professional vacancies, 67 in the St. Thomas/St. John District and 56 in the St. Croix District. Of those, 91 were vacated between Aug. 31, 2018 and February, with an addition 54 teachers on sick leave since the school year began in August.

Sen. Novelle Francis (D-STX) raised concerns about the teachers on sick leave, saying they should be held accountable or have their fitness for duty evaluated. Nicole Jacobs, human resources director at the Education Department, said some of the 54 cases are rollovers, but they are bona fide sickness. She said the department does follow-ups based on the type of sickness, and the professionals are required to submit a “fit to duty” to return to work.

Jacobs said most of the sickness cases are on St. Croix. She could not comment if the cases are due to mold problems in the workplace, but reiterated that these are bona fide sickness cases based on follow-ups with physicians.

The department’s professional needs-listing sweeps various specializations, from librarians to nurses to teachers for a wide range of subjects. Elementary teachers top the list, with 21 vacancies in both districts. The territory also needs 14 special education teachers, 13 vocational education teachers, 10 math teachers, and a scattering of English, foreign language, art and music teachers.

To stem the staffing crisis, the department relies heavily on substitute teachers, with 53 active substitutes consisting mostly of substitute teachers territory-wide.

The department also conducts ongoing recruitment, Berry-Benjamin said, with little success.

“Despite our year-round approach to recruitment, the [department] is still faced with challenges partially due to our central government and economic environment,” she said.

Education Department officials fill the testifiers table at Wednesday's hearing on the state of the public school system. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)
Education Department officials fill the testifiers table at Wednesday’s hearing on the state of the public school system. (Photo by Barry Leerdam for the V.I. Legislature)

The department’s hiring efforts in Puerto Rico, for instance, where they interviewed 20 candidates for teacher and librarian positions, yielded only three actual takers. Berry-Benjamin pointed to various factors hampering the territory’s ability to attract and retain teachers, including the high cost of living in the territory and a bleak outlook for the Government Employees Retirement System.

Across the nation, fewer people enter the teaching profession, said Berry-Benjamin, exacerbating the hiring challenges.

“The short-term solution the [department] is currently engaged in is the assessment of class sizes across the territory and merge smaller classes where possible,” Berry-Benjamin said. “While our preferred choice would be to have smaller class sizes, our current reality does not allow us to do so.”

School Lunch Program
Sen. Kurt Vialet (D-STX) also pointed out a discrepancy in the department’s report on the school lunch program.

According to Berry-Benjamin, in the 2016-2017 school year, the department provided more than 1.47 million school lunches and more than 500,000 breakfasts costing a federally reimbursable total of $4.9 million. She then added that the following school year, the department’s reimbursable value reached only $1.67 million, losing roughly $3.25 million because of the 2017 hurricanes.

Vialet said the figures were “dead wrong,” questioning why the total expected reimbursements for the two schools years amounted to the same dollar value, given fluctuations in enrollment

“We lost over 1,000 students. I have issues when we are so far off. And I really don’t like it when we’re so far off because it looks like that particular department just pasted something and gave it to you to present,” Vialet said.

Berry-Benjamin said she overlooked the apparent discrepancy and will make the needed corrections.

New and Old Spaces
Berry-Benjamin said the territory has 256 modular units: 167 in the St. Thomas-St. John District and 89 on St. Croix. Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, which suffered catastrophic damage during the 2017 hurricanes, accounts for 67 of the modular units. Arthur Richards Elementary School on St. Croix, meanwhile, has 49 while Julius Sprauve on St. John has 29 modular units.

There are 14 Sprung units across the territory serving as temporary campus facilities, including kitchens and auditoriums.

In spite of the new learning spaces, Berry-Benjamin said the department still needs to perform a certain level of maintenance in its old buildings, and the agency’s annual maintenance allotment is not enough, she said. Each school district gets roughly $300,000 a year in maintenance funds, a far smaller number than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ recommendation of $20 million a year to properly maintain the territory’s school infrastructure, according to Berry-Benjamin.

“As such, the maintenance operation still functions in a reactive mode as opposed to one that is proactively planned,” said Berry-Benjamin asking for the Senate’s help in finding more money to fund the agency’s maintenance division.

New School Construction
Three schools top the list of priority campuses slated for full reconstruction: Arthur A. Richards Junior High on St. Croix, Addelita Cancryn on St. Thomas, and Julius Sprauve School on St. John. According to Berry-Benjamin, Witt O’Briens, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department’s engineering division are still reviewing the the extent of hurricane damage.

The department also created a New Schools Construction Advisory Board to make sure stakeholders have a say in planning before construction begins.

“Instructional staff, parents, students, community members, unions, boards, higher education representatives, elected officials and facility experts will continue to have the opportunity to provide input to and work with our staff and consultants in developing proposals for new schools,” said Berry-Benjamin.

The advisory board in both districts have already met with the agency’s architectural consultants, she added.