Senators Want More Tech Teachers, Less Third-Party Fiduciary

Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory chaired the committee hearing Wednesday. (File photo by Barry Leerdam for the Legislature of the Virgin Islands)
Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory chaired the committee hearing Wednesday. (File photo by Barry Leerdam for the Legislature of the Virgin Islands)

Senators from the Committee on Education and Workforce Development wanted to know Wednesday what the Department of Education and Career and Technical Education Board were doing to resolve ongoing problems, such the shortage of vocational teachers and the federal compliance agreement that has been hovering over the department for a dozen years.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens said the compliance agreement, which requires the department to hire a third-party fiduciary, “is costing Virgin Islanders millions of dollars, money we could be spending elsewhere like building schools and hiring teachers.”

The initial contract signed in 2006 for a fiduciary was for $7.8 million and covered a 32-month period. The Education officials at the Senate hearing Wednesday did not know what the latest contract was costing the Virgin Islands.

Senators raised concerns that there were too many requirements for vocational teachers, the requirement of a bachelor’s degree being specifically mentioned. Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, a former commissioner of the Department of Education, questioned whether the problem of having a fiduciary agent was not connected with the difficulty of hiring vocational teachers?

“It plays a role,” Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin answered.

That led to a discussion of who was causing “a bottleneck” in hiring vocational teachers – the Board of Education, the Department of Education or the Career and Technical Education Board. Gittens urged the three entities to come together and resolve the problem.

Ronnie Jones, representing the Career Board on behalf of board chairperson Ilene Garner, highlighted the teacher shortage along with other problems in vocational training.

“There are some major challenges facing CTE.,” he said. “The challenges include: deteriorating classrooms and lab infrastructures, the lack of up-to-date equipment, outdated or no text books and materials in the classroom; limited travel to state and national conferences and competitions; and the most critical, the loss of certified teachers due to retirement or other to higher paying industries.”

Textbooks were also called a problem on the academic side. Sen. Stedmann Hodge said he saw a history textbook at the high school and its latest edition was 1995. Frett-Gregory said she was on a textbook committee five year ago and it was working on approving a textbook for third graders. She asked how far that committee had progressed and was told it was still working at the third-grade level.

Berry-Benjamin said the department was in transition. In preparation for the hearing she was asked to talk about plans for school consolidation. Her written testimony said, “On St. Croix, four of the district’s schools, Pearl B. Larsen, Juanita Gardine, Eulalie R. Rivera, and Arthur A. Richards will operate as K-8 schools all other schools remain the same. To accommodate bus schedules, after-school programs and activities for students, all schools in the St. Croix district will have new start and end times.”

“In the St. Thomas St. John District, the Leonard Dober Elementary School will be shuttered, but the campus will be utilized by the Edith Williams Alternative Program. Jane E. Tuitt Elementary will operate as a K-5 school and the Fifth graders from Joseph Gomez Elementary and Yvonne Milliner-Bowsky will attend the Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School for the 6th grade.”

As for the Career Board, Frett-Greory said she was concerned the board only had three members when its full component is nine.