Passions ran high as members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development questioned Department of Education representatives about preparations for the 2019-2020 school year.
Dionne Wells-Hedrington, chief operating officer for the department, pleaded with senators to help the department get started on building new schools. She said that before the hurricanes of 2017 many of the school buildings were in “an advanced state of decay.” She said what the hurricanes did was “rip off the Band-Aids.”
She talked about a New School Construction Advisory committee and a billion dollars’ worth of new schools. She wanted the Senate to fund an initiative to jump start the planning process. She said federal money would follow.
Senators voiced support for her vision and said long-terms plans were needed. However, some senators were not ready to support the department’s present situation.
The table of testifiers included Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin, St. Croix Deputy Superintendent Victor Somme III, St. Croix Insular Superintendent Carlos McGregor, Assistant Commissioner Maria Encarnacion, St. Thomas-St. John Insular Superintendent Stefan Jürgen, and territorial facilities manager Joseph Sibilly,
Sen. Kurt Vialet said Education officials had plenty of smaller jobs to do before building billions of dollars of new schools.
“You are not doing your job,” Vialet said.
Vialet said he could not accept that landscaping and minor maintenance could not be done during the summer. Some schools looked abandoned, he continued, with high grass and weeds surrounding them.
Jurgen acknowledged the point.
“We have a massive amount of work to do,” he said.
“And you want to do it all in two weeks,” Vialet concluded.
He added that residents were frustrated at the inaction of the Education Department.
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, who chaired the committee, agreed with Wells-Hedrington that it was time for the territory to develop a long-term plan addressing aging school structures. School enrollment in the territory is at 10,000 now about half of what it was in the ’70s and ’80s, making this an opportune time for construction as growth in the future is certain.
However, she stated she did not feel “warm and fuzzy” about the conversation taking place. She had organized a tour of the school buildings last week, after which she stated, “We are concerned. It looks like nothing has been done all summer. We are hoping that the Department of Education will be able to pull this off.”
She indicated her belief the problem was maintenance staff had no supervision over the summer months.
“When we look at the schools, it looks like the hurricanes were last week,” she said.
Sen Marvin Blyden asked about the controversy surrounding the Philippine teachers hired but who had to go back home this year. Berry-Benjamin said the teachers always sign on for three years and if they don’t get an extension they go back home. She said nothing was different this year “except someone told the media.”
She said 90 teachers had left the system last year but because of recruitment efforts the department had managed to hire 75 new teachers.
Although school officials were confident all the schools would be open on Sept. 3, students will be returning to schools without gymnasiums, libraries, playgrounds or fields for sports.
Charlotte Amalia High School will have two of its buildings (Buildings A and B) closed off. A third building (Building C) might be closed after the first semester.
At the urging of senators after the tour, the department is working to clear fields near Charlotte Amalia High School and Lockhart elementary so some outdoor activities can take place.
Berry-Benjamin said the 2019-2020 school year will look different because of the shifting and sharing of campuses caused by the infrastructural landscape of the territory but the department looks forward to welcoming students on Sept. 3.
Attending this part of the hearing were committee members Sens. Donna Frett-Gregory, Janelle Sarauw, Vialet, Stedmann Hodge Jr. and Allison DeGazon and non-committee members- Sen. Dwayne DeGraff and Myron Jackson.