Senator Donald Cole (center) hears from constituents in Coral Bay at a town meeting at GBS on April 16.
The fate of the Guy H. Benjamin Elementary School and transportation issues topped the list of concerns expressed at the Tuesday evening, April 16, town meeting in Coral Bay.
The meeting, hosted by the Coral Bay Community Council, drew about 40 participants, many of whom shared their opinions and concerns. Members of the 30th Legislature and their representatives traveled from St. Thomas to hear from their constituents.
Much of the talk at the two-hour meeting centered on a pending decision by Governor John P. deJongh as to whether Guy Benjamin School can stay open as a public elementary school. Because of a drop in enrollment, caused in part by the transfer of the kindergarten and first grades to the Julius E. Sprauve School in Coral Bay, Gov. deJongh is expressing concern about the $1 million he says is needed to keep the school open.
One alternative, being promoted by the Department of Education and some lawmakers, is converting Benjamin School into a an early learning center. Senator Tregenza Roach says a model already exists in the school system at the Jane E. Tuitt School in Savan on St. Thomas.
“The idea of the early childhood center was the most promising,” Sen. Roach said.
“Cram All the Students Into JESS”
Several residents who grew up in Coral Bay said they like their public school the way it is. They were joined in that sentiment by parents of current GBS students.
“It looks like they want to cram all the students into JESS. It’s ridiculous,” said Donna Matthias.
Senator Donald Cole urged concerned citizens to invite the governor to their next town meeting. Some in the meeting suggested the best person to address would be whatever government official is preparing the report that will guide Gov. de Jongh in his decision making.
That official was identified as Insular schools superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry.
Resident Robin Gallup raised the idea of starting a petition to present to the governor, but Anna Adam said one petition is already being kept.
“(Senator Craig) Barshinger is taking a tally of how many children will be going to Guy Benjamin next year,” Adams said.
CBCC Director Sharon Coldren said Sen. Barshinger indicated he would attend the April 16 meeting, which was held at Benjamin School, but would arrive late. The senator-at-large, however, did not appear.
Smith-Barry issued a statement several days ago, urging St. John residents to show their support for keeping Benjamin School open by registering their students for the 2014-2015 school year.
Meeting participants also raised concerns about meeting GBS’s short term spending needs. While most public schools have a goverment-issued imprest fund that allows them to make small expenditures. But teacher Jane Roskin said Education took the school’s checkbook back after Principal Brenda Dalmida went on sick leave in December.
“When Ms. Dalmida goes on sick leave the district took the checkbook,” Coldren said.
To cover their needs school administrators have been relying on organizers of the annual Guy Benjamin School Regatta for funds, which meeting participants said is causing tensions.
Public Transit Lacks Funds
Meager funding was also blamed when the subject turned to St. John Vitran bus service. The service is operated by the Department of Public Works, which has reported in previous years that St. John ridership gives public bus service the greatest support.
However for the past several months Vitran discontinued weekend service. Meeting participants said the lack of service has left riders, including elderly churchgoers, stranded.
“If the buses had more ridership Vitran would have money,” said resident Joan Wilson.
Coldren told the group that when she inquired with Public Works about the weekend bus service she was told that when lawmakers passed a bill letting residents over 60 ride Vitran for free, Vitran could no longer afford the gasoline to keep the buses running all week.
Public officials taking part in the April 16 meeting included Senators Roach, Jackson and Cole; a representative of Senate President Shawn-Michael Malone, and Senatorial candidate Justin Harrigan.