Lawmakers on Friday approved Sen. Tregenza Roach’s free-tuition policy bill, the game-changing piece of legislation expected to give some 1,700 Virgin Islanders pursuing their first undergraduate degree a full-ride at the University of the Virgin Islands.
“It’s a wonderful feeling because if it was not the first, then it must have been the second bill that I introduced,” said Roach, referring to his multiple attempts to get through the Senate the bill now known as the University of the Virgin Islands Higher Education Scholarship Program.
“But I want to say to people that we have to look at these things, not in a vacuum, but we have to look at the big picture and the big picture includes looking at our university and what it offers, and what it ensures is that the labor needs of the territory are met, that we create meaningful educational and employment opportunities for our young people,” added Roach.
All present lawmakers voiced strong support and voted in favor of the bill: Sens. Marvin Blyden (D-STT), Dwayne DeGraff (D-STT), Jean Forde (D-STT), Novelle Francis (D-STX), Myron Jackson (D-STT), Neville James (D-STX), Positive T.A. Nelson (I-STX), Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly (D-STX), Sammuel Sanes (D-STX), Janelle Sarauw (I-STT), Brian Smith (At-Large) and Kurt Vialet (D-STX), and Roach. Sens. Alicia “Chucky” Hansen and Janette Millin Young (I-STT) were absent.
Jackson, Degraff, James, Francis and Sanes have also signed on as bill sponsors.
The full-tuition scholarships would be available to all Virgin Islanders who graduated from a private, public or parochial high school regardless of age or date of graduation.
Roach said the concept for the free-tuition policy was birthed more than a decade ago when Roach worked at the university and saw students leaving college and coming back based on their financial circumstances at a given time. He brought up the idea of incorporating the free-tuition into the Constitutional Convention discussions to then-UVI President Laverne Ragster, and when the Constitutional Convention did not succeed, he took his ideas to the Senate.
There has been some controversy surrounding the ownership of the free-tuition bill, and legislative and public conversation has been split between Roach’s version and that of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s, which was reviewed by the Senate (without a final bill for review) in an Oct. 27 special session. A key difference is a provision in Roach’s bill eliminating any household income limits for an applicant to qualify for support.
Other provisions in Roach’s bill that deviated from Mapp’s is the 2.50 GPA that aid recipients would need to maintain. It also requires the participation of the V.I. Department of Labor, since the bill requires scholarship awardees to work in the territory for a specific length of time: a scholarship recipient who receives a four-year scholarship for a bachelor’s degree must agree to work in the territory for three years, while a recipient who receives a two-year scholarship for an associate’s degree must work in the territory for one year.
Scholarship awardees are required to sign a contract agreeing to the work commitment and imposes penalties for failure to comply. Under the bill, the responsibility to work with the Labor Department to ensure placement for scholarship awardees falls on the university.
“We did not want to frustrate the students by requiring them to stay in the territory and not have support in terms of helping them to find employment,” said Roach.
According to Roach, the bill also grants the university more authority to set the policy when it comes to the rollout and implementation of the tuition measure. In order to help awardees maintain their 2.5 GPA benchmark, the bill requires the university to use resources such as tutoring sessions.
Roach noted that Gov. Kenneth Mapp identified a funding source for the measure, an issue that held up Roach’s previous attempts to push it through past Legislatures. A yearly appropriation of $3 million from the Internal Revenue Matching Fund, starting in the current fiscal year, would pay for the cost of the free-tuition policy. The amount would go into the University of the Virgin Islands Scholarship Revolving Fund established under Roach’s bill.
The initial $3 million funding is expected to support some 1,700 students, according to UVI President David Hall, and would supplement students’ federal scholarship awards, university scholarships, and private donations.
Hall, during the special session held for Mapp’s version of the bill, testified in favor a free-tuition initiative for the Virgin Islands, which ranks last among all states in terms of adults who have completed a college degree – 11.4 percent for the territory compared to a national average of about 27 percent. The bill would also make UVI the first of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to offer free tuition to residents of its home state or territory, according to Hall.
Hall also testified that the free-tuition policy could curb some of the territory’s brain-drain problem by rewarding students for remaining in, or returning to, the Virgin Islands, increasing UVI’s retention and enrollment rates.
The University of the Virgin Islands Higher Education Scholarship Program will head to the governor’s desk for review. If approved, it becomes law; if vetoed, the Senate will need 10 votes to override the veto and ultimately make the bill law.
All present senators also voted unanimously in favor of a string of lease agreements between the government of the Virgin Islands and private entities and individuals, including:
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s Department of Property and Procurement and Marco St. Croix, Inc.
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s and THAW, LLC d/b/a # 1 Gopher.
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s Property and Procurement, on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, and Grantley Samuel.
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s Property and Procurement, on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, and Louis Orta.
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s Property and Procurement, on behalf of the Department of Agriculture,and Philippe Philbert.
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s Property and Procurement, on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, and Andrea Montoute and Claritta Montoute.
– A lease agreement between the V.I. government’s Property and Procurement, on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, and Jerome Bryan.
Lawmakers also approved various resolutions honoring the accomplishments of local groups and individuals, including:
– A bill acknowledging the “Voices of Love” Choir and its 40 years of musical accomplishments and charitable services to the V.I. community.
– A resolution posthumously honoring and commending Guilderoy Ashley Sprauve Sr. for his service and contributions to the marine industry. Sprauve was a popular diesel mechanic for the major ferry boats on St. John, St. Thomas, and Tortola, British Virgin Islands.
– An act honoring Noel “Breeze” Boynes Sr. of the ferry company, Boyson, Inc., for his service to St. John and renaming Route 104 South (also known as the Southside Road) in Boynes’ honor.