Senate Panel OKs Re-Establishing Information System; No Funds Included

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory (V.I. Legislature file photo)
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory (V.I. Legislature file photo)

Senators sent forward legislation (Bill 33-0196) to “establish” the “Virgin Islands Virtual Information System … within the Department of Education” on Tuesday, re-establishing the centralized school and to revive the VIVIS system established during the tenure of Gov. John DeJongh Jr.

The system was put in place back in 2013 at a cost of almost $5 million. According to the Department of Education, the system exists but has large gaps in its data.

Testifiers were more clear about what data it does not have than what actually exists. Education Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin testified the Education Department would need three quarters of a million dollars per year to carry out the renewed mandate.

Back in 2013, when the system was first put in place, Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory was commissioner of Education. At a ceremony that year for the launch of the system, Frett-Gregory said the system gives the government the ability to assign each child in the territory a unique ID at birth that will follow through their lives.

“VIVIS will automatically collect data associated with that unique ID and store it in a centralized data warehouse that will securely allow legally mandated key users to view protected data and other stakeholders to view summarized information reports,” she said.
“It will also help us to identify what programs work and what programs need to be changed,” Frett-Gregory said in 2013.

DeJong said at the time it “will allow us to track a child from birth through higher education, and even into the workforce, and use that data to make meaningful decisions that will benefit the entire community.”

Today, it is unclear how complete that record is or how functional the system is.

“Right now we do have data and reports, but we have to have permission to really publicize some of these reports,” James Richardson, director of planning, research and evaluation for the Education Department, said at Tuesday’s hearing of the Education and Workforce Development Committee.

“Internally I can share them but I cannot put them on the public side of VIVIS because it was done a few years ago and have not ever been approved by those organizations and you want to validate the data by having them approved,” he said.

The system was originally meant to collect data from multiple agencies and nonprofits as well as the Department of Education, including Health Department birth, death and other records. Much of that appears to be uncollected, although it might exist in paper or other form at those locations.

“Some of the issues we have is missing data. There are some years with no data, it kind of makes it difficult to see trends,” Richardson said.

Asked for an example, Richardson said that for the “Department of Health there is a gap from 1995 to 2017. … I think they have the data but it is not in an electronic form.”

VIVIS can automatically pull information from other systems, if they are hooked together, but not if there is no coordination.

“They do have a system but they have a period with one system, then a period with no system, then a period with another system,” Richardson said.

He also emphasized that the system itself is robust and versatile and does have good data.

“No state right now has early childhood data incorporated into their system. We do,” Richardson said.

Sen. Janelle Sarauw said the next time the bill is discussed it would be important to have the V.I. Bureau of Information Technology present to provide some clarity on the landscape of government digital data sources.

Frett-Gregory, now the senator chairing Tuesday’s hearing, said “personalities” get in the way of government effectiveness.

Frett-Gregory said when one administration ended “it was no longer a priority for the Department of Education. And of course it sounds to me like it was not a priority for the new chief executive (Gov. Kenneth Mapp).

“So all that time and funds that were spent in 2012 and forward went for naught because we are still having conversations about gathering up our stakeholders. We have to find a way to ensure there is some kind of continuity in this territory,” she said.

The new bill, sponsored by Sen. Janelle Sarauw, requires agencies to provide data regarding birth records, early childhood, kindergarten through 12th grade, postsecondary, workforce and health, including “birth weight, age, school discipline, school attendance, assessments, enrollment, and employment status.” It creates an executive council, under the Education Department, to set policy and mandates policies to preserve personal data privacy.

Berry-Benjamin urged senators to either put authority over the system within the Education Department or, alternatively, make the executive council an independent entity not under the Education Department. She also said the department needed funding to pay for it, to avoid cutting funding for its core mission of running the public schools. According to Berry-Benjamin, annual costs would include around $250,000 for cloud hosting of the data off-site; $148,000 for technical support and services; $123,000 for Microstrategy software licenses; $30,000 for communication and miscellaneous expenses; and $170,000 in salaries and benefits for three employees, including a VIVIS lead technical person, a data manager and a report developer.

The legislation contain no funding for the project.

Voting to send the bill out of committee for amendment in the Rules and Judiciary Committee were:

Frett-Gregory, Sarauw, Sens. Stedmann Hodge Jr., and Kurt Vialet. Sens. Allison DeGazon, Steven D. Payne and Kenneth Gittens were absent. DeGazon and Payne attended part of the hearing earlier but left prior to this vote.

The committee also sent out of committee a bill creating a $40,000 per year psychiatry scholarship for up to two students per year. The measure, sponsored by Vialet, would require students to work for two years for the V.I. government for each year of scholarship they get.

“From the time I got into the Legislature in 2015 we have heard the cry of not having sufficient psychiatrists in the territory,” Vialet said while introducing the bill. “It is a national issue. It is not something that is unique to the U.S. Virgin Islands,” he added.

Health Department, Bureau of Corrections and Board of Education officials all testified in support. Board of Medical Examiners Chairman Frank Odlum suggested it might bring more psychiatrists sooner by broadening it to allow students to pay down existing medical school debt. Voting to send it on to the Rules and Judiciary Committee were:DeGazon, Hodge, Sarauw, Vialet and Frett-Gregory. Gittens was absent.

The committee approved a bill requiring teachers in kindergarten through third grade to have specific early childhood education requirements outlined by the Board of Education.