Senate Panel Debates Emergency Education Powers

Sen Vialet introduces his school calendar bill at a committee hearing Monday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)
Sen Vialet introduces his school calendar bill at a committee hearing Monday. (Photo by Barry Leerdam, Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

Sen. Kurt Vialet, having served under Education commissioners while a high school principal, was leery of giving them too much power. However, he said Monday that the 2017 hurricanes and the resulting problems at the schools convinced him something needs to be done.

What he is trying to do is get a bill passed giving the Department of Education greater flexibility in setting the school calendar when a state of emergency is declared.

When he introduced the bill to the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development he said he could argue both pro and con for the bill.

After the 2017 hurricanes hit the islands, teachers were required to sign in every day even though no students were in attendance. When students were able to attend school, to meet the 1,080 hours of schooling required by the V.I. Code, students would have had to go to school until mid July.

Vialet said going to school until mid-July would have been impossible for many students who had scholarships for summer camps and education events in the states.

Sen Donna Frett-Gregory agreed with Vialet’s counter argument. She said the bill gave the commissioner “way too much power.” Vialet emphasized that the bill did not take effect unless “a state of emergency was declared.” He said it would not take effect if the territory was visited by a Category 1 hurricane. He said it had to be a “devastating” natural disaster.

Racquel Berry-Benjamin, education commissioner nominee, said she fully supported the measure because during an emergency “the need for quick action is paramount.”

Carver Farrow, president V.I. Educational Administrators Association Local 101, also spoke in favor of the bill at the hearing saying, “We can’t continue the way we have.”

By a vote of 4-1, the bill was forwarded to the Rules Committee with a favorable recommendation. Frett-Gregory cast the one dissenting vote. Sens. Vialet, Allison DeGazon, Stedmann Hodge, and Javan James voted in favor. Sens. Myron Jackson and Janelle Sarauw were absent from the meeting.

What was not resolved in the debate is what 1,080 hours school year requirement in the code meant. Did it mean the hours the schools were open or hours the teachers and students had contact? This lack of definition caused some of the acrimony between teachers and administrators after the hurricanes.

Sen. James did get his concern cleared up. He asked whether the failure of having less than a certain number of school hours affected youngsters chances for educational opportunities stateside. He was told no.

Two resolutions proposed by Sen. Kenneth Gittens were held in committee for further consideration. The resolutions were to recognize Kerra Samuel, state teacher of the year from the district of St. Croix Virgin Islands and Shermore Prince, St. Thomas and St. John district teacher of the year for their dedication and service to the people of the Virgin Islands.

Vialet said though he recognized the achievements of these teachers, he was concerned that the passage of these resolutions would set a precedent and senators would be flooded “with a tremendous amount of resolutions.”

The Workforce Committee also got an update from Joss Springette, chief negotiator nominee for Office of Collective Bargaining.

Vialet raised with her the problems caused from the raising of the minimum base pay for government workers last year. He said that cafeteria workers who were hired last week are making the same amount as workers who have been there for 20 years.

Springette indicated there was no easy solution to that problem.