Gov. Kenneth Mapp told attendees of a St. John town hall Tuesday that the V.I. government and the Department of the Interior are again considering a land swap that would allow for the construction of a new public school on what is now National Park land.
Mapp called the town hall at Julius E. Sprauve School to “follow up” with the St. John community on hurricane recovery issues discussed at a previous meeting held at the same location in May. With two weeks until Election Day, Tuesday was the first time since May that Mapp has held a town meeting with St. John residents, some of whom spoke of feeling ignored and disregarded by the local government in the year since Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
One thing that appears to have shifted since May is Mapp’s stance on acquiring National Park land for the rebuild of the Sprauve School, which will be demolished in its current form and location. Tuesday evening Mapp said he has been told by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the DOI is willing to donate 10 acres of park land on St. John for the new school, although this would likely only by done as a trade for another parcel.
The idea of a land swap for a St. John school is not new. Efforts to identify lands to trade and to navigate the complicated and often controversial process of donating federal public lands for local community use span decades. A plan to exchange land on St. Croix that would have become a national Alexander Hamilton monument for a potential school site in Estate Catherineberg on St. John fell apart under previous gubernatorial and presidential administrations.
At his May town hall meeting on St. John, Mapp signaled his administration favors options for a new St. John school that don’t involve federal land trades.
“We’re not going to banter with the National Park any longer,” he said.
But Tuesday Mapp told St. John residents he now feels positive about working with the DOI on a land swap, although “nothing is set in stone.” He said it’s possible to trade land on uninhabited cays off St. John for acreage on the island, an idea that dates back at least to the Turnbull Administration. The only specific option Mapp mentioned for an exchange is a cay off Trunk Bay that, according to the V.I.’s Geospatial Information System, is already National Park land.
As recently as August 2017, retiring president of the non-profit Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park Joe Kessler has publicly said the organization is willing to donate four acres of privately-held land in Estate Sieben-Mollendahl to augment any land the local government can come up with. Kessler also said at the time that inaction on the plan lay with the Governor’s Office, words echoed by Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett who in 2017 said Mapp “has not expressed interest” in a land trade.
Although acquiring land for a new public school would be seen as a long-deferred victory by many residents of St. John, one finally made possible in part by 2017’s hurricanes, Mapp also signaled that Sprauve School’s rebuild may not include the high school many hope for.
When longtime school advocate Lorelei Monsanto asked Mapp whether JESS will have an expanded facility to serve kindergarten through 12th grade students, he replied that those decisions are not up to him, but discussions within the Department of Education favor keeping JESS an elementary and middle school only.
Mapp and Commissioner of Education Sharon McCollum both said Tuesday St. John students benefit from attending high school at a larger school such as Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas because it “socialized” them within a larger community.
“Because of the smallness of the [St. John] community, we want our children to get out and start socializing with other children of different persuasions, different cultures, all in preparation for when they leave for college or university,” said Mapp.
Attendees of the meeting who both commuted to public high school on St. Thomas and attended private high school on St. John, disagreed with the administration’s reasoning.
Sprauve School industrial arts teacher Kurt Marsh Jr. said that commuting from the eastern side of St. John to St. Thomas cuts into students’ time and energy for extracurriculars, homework and needed part-time jobs.
“One of the things that I will bring to the table is a delayed, later start for St. John students, second period perhaps. We can do that in different ways with scheduling,” McCollum said.
McCollum repeated Mapp’s words that “nothing is in stone at this point,” but added the DOE is concerned about finding enough teachers, and housing for them, to staff an expanded school, even with a recent salary increase.
She said an advisory committee will meet to plan school rebuilds across the territory as soon as December, and St. Johnians will be included on that committee.
St. John residents also brought up issues beyond the school rebuild. Mapp himself opened the meeting with a recovery update that took less than 10 minutes before taking questions.
Former Sen. Robert O’Connor said affordable housing and flood mitigation were two things that should be priorities in St. John’s recovery. He said he worries that without access to affordable housing there will be few families to even send children to a new school.
Mapp said energy infrastructure is one of the first things to be tackled on St. John. Two four-megawatt generators are soon to be ordered for the island, and FEMA has approved a plan to put Cruz Bay’s utilities underground and establish a 2.5 megawatt solar farm in Coral Bay.
Mapp also said Jaredian Design Group on St. Thomas has been hired to do a “complete, authentic, historical restoration” of the Cruz Bay Battery, the storm-damaged historic structure that he called “one of the island’s gems.” When asked if there were plans to turn that space into a museum or cultural center for St. John, Mapp said he was “not going to make that decision tonight.”
When asked by Love City Strong non-profit director Meaghan Enright when the modular facilities at the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center will be ready for use, Mapp said he did not have a timeline but materials have been ordered.