About a dozen St. John residents traveled to St. Thomas last week to tell senators what they think about changes announced by the Department of Education, and it seems that someone was listening.
Late last month DOE Commissioner LaVerne Terry announced sweeping changes to numerous schools in both the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix Districts.
On St. John, DOE officials announced that Julius E. Sprauve School principal Mario Francis would be transferred to the Edith Williams Alternative Academy on St. Thomas.
Guy Benjamin School principal Dionne Wells was transferred to JESS to take over for Francis and Whitman Browne, the former principal of Evelyn Marcelli School — which DOE will close at the end of the school year — was assigned to take over the helm of GBS.
Browne, however, lives on St. Thomas and made no secret of the fact that he views his transfer to the Coral Bay public elementary school as politically motivated.
“The history of sending people from St. Thomas to Coral Bay is a strategy to victimize and harass them,” Browne previously told St. John Tradewinds. “It’s political — I know it’s political. I didn’t support Governor deJongh and I will not support deJongh.”
Browne also told Tradewinds he would be happy to take over at JESS, which would allow Wells to remain at GBS. He was among the witnesses who testified at a Tuesday evening, June 7, meeting of the V.I. Legislature’s Committee on Education, Youth and Culture, which is chaired by Senator Jeanette Millin-Young.
GBS parent Trish Meyers and faculty member Claudine Daniel testified during the committee meeting about the good work done by Wells at GBS. The senators were also presented with a petition to keep Wells at GBS signed by 507 St. John residents.
While it might be too late to affect change for this transfer, after hearing the testimony, Millin-Young got right to work drafting legislation to ensure these types of transfers don’t happen in the future.
“We have in fact, drafted legislation that was turned into legal counsel to address the procedures of transfers and school closings,” said Rudy Krigger, legislative researcher for Millin-Young. “One of the things that came out of the hearing was that there is no process in place for regress or grievance.”
“The chairwoman asked the DOE Commissioner if there was any way parents or teachers could ask the department to reconsider the situation, and she basically said, ‘No,’” said Krigger. “She said the department decisions are final and there is no process of appeal.”
The testifiers at the hearing made it clear that there should be an avenue for people to appeal the DOE’s decisions, Krigger explained.
“They spoke to us very loudly and clearly that we need to revisit the procedures by which schools are closed and principals are transferred,” he said. “In regards to the transfer of principals the draft legislation stipulates that the approval of the Board of Education would be required to affect the transfer of a head principal of a school.”
Currently under V.I. law, the DOE must get Board of Education approval to demote or terminate a principal, but not for a transfer. If Millin-Young’s legislation passes, DOE would need Board of Education approval for transfers as well.
“We are not inserting ourself into the process of administrating schools,” said Krigger. “This draft legislation would put the onus where it belongs, equally between the DOE and the Board of Education.”
The draft legislation also stipulates that before closing a school, DOE officials must get approval from the Board of Education and, if approved, also obtain ratification from the Legislature, Krigger explained.
The legislation is currently under review and will likely change before it comes up for vote before the full body. While the bill would stop moves like Wells’ unpopular transfer from occurring in the future, it will not have any bearing on her assignment next school year, according to Krigger.
“We can’t pass ex facto laws,” he said. “These laws don’t address what is being done now, but what would happen going forward.”
There is, however, someone who could stop the transfer, explained Coral Bay Community Council president Sharon Coldren, who attended last week’s hearing as well.
“Everyone on St. John needs to call Government House at 774-0001 and leave a message for the Governor that you want him to change this decision,” said Coldren. “All the governor has to do is pick up the phone — and its done. He can fix this.”
CBCC has long supported GBS and Coldren knows first hand Browne’s suspicion of transfers to the Coral Bay school being used as a form of punishment.
“We all know that there is a long history of sending out-of-favor government employees to St. John, and even all the way to Coral Bay, as punishment,” said Coldren. “The people of St. John have stood up against this during the last five years with a lot of success — we are not stopping now. Forcing long commutes on employees as punishment is a huge waste of human resources and government dollars.”
Before Wells took over at GBS five years ago, CBCC members volunteered at the school and helped bridge the gap left by the former principal, who commuted from St. Thomas.
“In the several years prior to Ms. Wells being at GBS, when Ms. Bowers was commuting from St. Thomas, CBCC was trying to bridge the growing gap between the teachers and the principal in working for common objectives to improve the school,” said Coldren. “Frankly, I see with any new principal that CBCC and its members would have to take a larger role again, like we did previously.”
While no changes to DOE’s transfers were announced last week, Millin-Young’s staff is committed to doing everything in its power to keep Wells at GBS.
“We haven’t been able to come to a clear understanding of the DOE’s agenda,” said Krigger. “We still make the point that we do not want to encroach upon the Executive Branch’s rights and responsibilities to exercise management over schools and facilities, however, Chairwoman Millin-Young and other members of the committee will continue to use the powers of moral persuasion to influence the DOE Commissioner to do what we consider the right thing.”