A total of four parents took the microphone to share their concerns about public education facilities on St. John with DOE Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, above center, at a V.I. Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development meeting at the Cruz Bay Legislature building on Monday, February 3.
While more than 100 residents, including Guy Benjamin School and Julius E. Sprauve School parents, staff and administrators packed the room, few residents took advantage of the opportunity to share their concerns about St. John public schools at a V.I. Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development meeting at the Cruz Bay Legislature building on Monday afternoon, February 3.
The meeting room was just about full to capacity for last week’s committee meeting which included testimony from Department of Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, St. Thomas/St. John DOE Insular Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry, St. Thomas/St. John American Federation of Teachers Local 1825 President Vernelle deLargde, and Board of Education President Carol Henneman.
Following testimony from the invited officials, only two parents signed up to testify before the committee with two more parents eventually giving testimony; making for a total of four public comments at last week’s meeting, which was chaired by Senator Donald Cole.
Due to a decline in enrollment at GBS, a territory-wide teacher shortage and last minute retirement notices, DOE officials last year combined the Kindergarten and First Grade classes at the two island schools, Frett-Gregory told the senate committee.
“This current school year it was necessary for the department to make some adjustments in the classes at both Guy Benjamin and Julius Sprauve schools,” she said. “These adjustments were necessary as part of our efforts to make the most efficient use of our available human resources given the circumstances we faced in St. John at the beginning of the school year.”
Facing budget cuts totaling $40 million over the past five years and ongoing teacher shortages, DOE officials were forced to act in August when only nine students were registered for Kindergarten at GBS while 30 students were registered at JESS, Frett-Gregory explained.
“Sprauve needed more than one teacher, and there were no surplus teachers, while GBS had one teacher for nine students,” she said. “The decision was clear that the Kindergarten classes needed to be consolidated so that both teachers could accommodate all the kindergartners. The district waited until after the late registration date to see if more parents would register their children for GBS, but that did not occur.”
When a third grade teacher at JESS resigned in July, it left DOE in need of another teacher for the Cruz Bay school, according to the DOE Superintendent.
“In First Grade there were nine students at GBS and 18 at Sprauve,” she said. “A third grade teacher at Sprauve resigned and there were already over 20 students enrolled. Because Sprauve needed another teacher, it was prudent to free up a teacher from GBS by consolidating the first grade classes as well.”
“We had to ensure that we were utilizing personnel effectively and efficiently,” said Frett-Gregory.
Faced with the steady decline in enrollment at GBS — which now has 55 students compared to 285 students at JESS — DOE officials are considering their options in regards to public schools on St. John, Frett-Gregory explained.
“A primary consideration under discussion is to utilize the Guy Benjamin Elementary School facility as an early childhood education facility servicing Pre-K through Grade Two and eventually including Head Start,” she said.
While recognizing the concerns of the close-knit Coral Bay community, DOE must face the fiscal reality of running two schools on St. John, the DOE Commissioner explained.
“The current annual cost to operate Guy Benjamin Elementary School is approximately $1.1 million and it is approximately $2.3 million to operate the Julius Sprauve School,” she said.
Frett-Gregory plans to include St. John stakeholders including parents and teachers of both schools in DOE’s conversations about the future of GBS, the commissioner added.
Parents and schools officials will also have plenty of notice about what the next school year will bring to both campuses regarding which classes will be available, Frett-Gregory explained.
Senate committee members also heard an update on the DOE’s long-promised new K through 12 school for St. John at last week’s meeting. A plan to build a new school for St. John students to attend high school on the island has long been discussed. The proposed site of the project is located on land owned by the National Park Service, which is conducting a detailed historical analysis of the site, explained Frett-Gregory.
“This additional request further delayed the project due to the additional work and funding needed to fulfil the NPS request,” she said.
DOE is working with Department of Interior and Department of Public Works officials, who will take the lead on the project moving forward, according to Frett-Gregory.
“DPW is the governing agency for all government capital projects,” she said. “In this instance, the department provides information needed to develop the plan and scopes of work for the project and continues to work closely with DPW on this matter.”
DPW officials will host a “public scoping” meeting on the new St. John public elementary and high school later this year, Frett-Gregory added.
After hearing testimony from the invited officials, Gina Wellner — one of the four parents who testified at the meeting — asked the senate committee members to remember their own early education experiences.
“I want you to think about your education and where you went to school,” said Wellner. “You are safe-guarding the island for our children. We want our children to follow in your footsteps.”
“We need more money for St. John schools, especially the arts,” Wellner said. “And put this on the top of the pile because it’s important.”
In attendance at last week’s meeting were Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development chairmen Senators Cole, and members Janette Millin-Young, Tregenza Roach, Judi Buckley, Myron Jackson and a late arriving Nereida O’Reilly.