Open forum: Teachers Left Out of Loop on Infrastructure Changes

Carol A. Callwood, president of the teachers’ union

Dear Source:

The leader of the St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers is questioning territorial officials’ process for addressing infrastructure problems at Charlotte Amalie High School and other sites in the St. Thomas-St. John district.

The Virgin Islands Department of Education began scheduling meetings with faculty and staff at the affected schools—the first public indication that officials had arrived at a plan to address lingering damage at school sites caused by the 2017 hurricanes and delayed maintenance.

Just days earlier last week, an Education Department official said agency leaders were aware of the problems at CAHS, but indicated a plan of action was still taking shape. “When we have a concrete plan in place, it will be released to the public,” the official told the Virgin Islands Consortium.

This process is flawed, said Carol A. Callwood, president of the teachers’ union. Not only teachers, but parents also remain in the dark about the changes.

“When I spoke with Deputy Superintendent Dr. SymraDee Brown, she said I should trust the department,” Callwood said. “But neither I nor our teachers can trust a plan that wasn’t discussed with them and that was developed without their input. They don’t need our permission, but professional courtesy and respect should allow dialogue with the entities involved.”

Callwood said some teachers have now been told that restructuring will affect three schools, including CAHS, during the coming school year. “A plan of this magnitude should have been communicated in a collaborative discussion with the Office of the Commissioner, the Office of the Insular Superintendent and the Union leadership,” she said.

The governor’s office issued an executive order just over a week ago, declaring a state of public exigency for the Education Department. That allows the department to expedite the procurement and contracting process. Schools are set to open Sept. 3, but much of the work is not done.

“With just three weeks to go before students walk into our classrooms, how does this executive order get money to the contractors to complete the necessary work?” Callwood asked.

Schools that were used for summer classes need to be thoroughly cleaned, she said. That routine maintenance includes buffing and waxing floors, cleaning air circulation filters, replacing lights, and repairing wall outlets and other components of the electrical systems. Many schools should also get a much-needed coat of paint, something that was denied last year by FEMA rules.

Even schools that were closed all summer need extensive preparation—including air quality testing and mold remediation—before the new school year, Callwood added. In addition, many maintenance requests are still pending from last school year.

“Some of the teachers impacted by the three-school shuffle will have to move for the third time since the storms of 2017,” Callwood said. “Once again they will be scavenging for packing and moving boxes and supplies. Who will help them pack their teaching materials and move to their new location? Does VIDE have the staff or resources to assist,” Callwood asked, “Or is this burden solely on the teachers?”

Last September, structural issues at CAHS led to the condemnation of 18 classrooms in Building B on the campus. Media reports say an additional 10 classrooms and offices have been condemned.

This follows closely on the heels of a restructuring plan for schools on St. Croix, which was developed with similar secrecy. The Education Department is also tasked with filling scores of teaching vacancies throughout the territory as educators continue to retire and resign, some out of pure frustration with the system.

St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers