Published: Jun 18, 2024

ST. CROIX – The 35th Legislature of the Virgin Islands’ Committee on Education and Workforce Development, led by Senator Marise C. James met in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Conference Room. The Committee received an update from the Virgin Islands Department of Education on data and information received from all public-school principals during the Year End School Data Review Presentation for SY23-24, including but not limited to enrollment statistics, academic performance data, financial overview, classroom configurations for SY24-25, technology resources, accomplishments linked to School Improvement Plans, and challenges or obstacles encountered during the SY23-24. Additionally, the Committee also received testimony from the Virgin Islands Board of Education on its assessment of the SY23-24 and recommendations to improve the quality of education for the upcoming school year. The St. Croix Public School Parent Coalition presented concerns that have been identified by public school students. Lawmakers also considered a measure that would transfer the administration of the Government Insurance Fund from the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Finance to the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Labor.

Dr. Dionne Wells Hedrington, Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education informed the body that public school enrollment has declined in the territory. Wells-Hedrington stated that the main reason behind this is demographic shifts, such as declining birth rates, leading to fewer school age children, and an increasing senior population. Economic factors have also played a role, with financial challenges affecting affordability to live in the Virgin Islands. The closing of housing communities, especially in the St. Croix District has caused a major population shift. Alternative schooling options, such as homeschooling and online schooling have also contributed to the decline. Enrollment in the St. Thomas- St. John District declined from 5,415 in the 2019-2020 school year to 5,220 in the 2023-2024 school year. In the St. Croix District, there has been a decline over the last 5 years from 5,492 students in the 2019-2020 school year to 5,082 students in the 2023-2024 school year. There has been a stark decline in high school enrollment. For example, Charlotte Amalie High school, which has a capacity of 1,600 students, and historically which has had 1,350 students, only had 1,076 students this past school year. Most students are primarily of Black or African American Descent. However, the Hispanic population is steadily increasing. Absenteeism has dropped in the St. Thomas St John District from 39.6 in 2022-2023 to 19.0 in 2023-2024. Absenteeism in St. Croix was 40.8% in 2022-2023 to 38.4% in 2023-2024. Dropout rates have decreased, from 4.3% in 2021-2022 in STTJ to 2.2% in 2022-2023 and in STX from 3.8% in 2021-2022 to 2.3% in 2022-2023. Dropout rates decreased in the Virgin Islands from 4.1% in 2021-2022 to 2.2% in 2022-2023. Graduation rates have increased in the territory. In the STTJ District, it increased from 72.1% in 2021-2022 to 76.8% in 2022-2023, and in STX from 76.6% in 2021-2022 to 79.5% in 2022-2023. It increased overall in the territory from 74.4% in 2021-2022 to 78.0% in 2022-2023.

Kyza Callwood, Chairman of the Virgin Islands Board of Education shared an assessment of the 2023-2024 School Year, and recommendations to improve the quality of education for the upcoming school year. Callwood informed the body that the board is mandated to prepare a School Management Accountability Report (SMAR). That report is shared with the Legislature, the Department of Education and other important stake holders. Changes include the passage of Act 8717, which transferred the responsibilities related to school facilities to the Bureau of School Construction and Maintenance. The board now focuses on evaluating public school curricula, instruction, and administration. The Board found that current curriculum and instructional practices are not supporting positive Smarter Balance outcomes, across core subjects, especially in technology usage and skills. Many students have been performing under standards, particularly in English and Math. However, there has been some growth in Science. The Board recommended that there must be major alignment between the Smarter Balance testing and instructional quality.

Abdul Ali, Chairman of the St. Croix Public School Parent Coalition identified solutions to improve public education in the territory. He suggested providing a communication plan to include changes in school administration and updates on school maintenance projects and other related information. He suggested a marketing campaign to hire teachers from Puerto Rico to attract teachers in critical areas and offer a reliable internet school connectivity service. Ali stated that a digital learning seamless connectivity platform should be installed to provide proper instruction and learning. Ali advocated for the repair and upgrades to playground equipment and areas, stating that they can help relieve student stress. Additionally. Ali implored for the installation and repair of bathroom structures, fixtures, and kitchen equipment in all school, as well as the publication and publishing of a quarterly air quality and water quality report for each school in the St. Croix District. Ali also asked the Department of Education for a status update on the 30-60-90-day Public School Project Plan.

Lawmakers also considered Bill No. 35-0240, An Act transferring the administration of the Government Insurance Fund from the Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Finance to the Commissioner of Virgin Islands Department of Labor and amending various sections of Title 24 Virgin Islands Code, Chapter 11 to facilitate better recovery for injury or disease that arises out of and in the course of employment in the Virgin Islands under the Workers’ Compensation Administration, and to ensure that workers entitled to Workers’ Compensation benefits receive medical coverage, rehabilitation services, and disability compensation without undue delay by merging the benefits and payment components of the Workers’ Compensation Insurance Program. The measure was sponsored by Senator Novelle E. Francis Jr. by request of the Governor.

Kevin McCurdy, Commissioner of the Department of Finance stated that the proposed measure aims to enhance the efficiency of managing workers compensation benefits, ensuring prompt delivery of medical coverage, rehabilitation services and disability compensation to eligible workers. The main goal of the proposed measure is to ensure the effective fulfillment of mandates obligations of the Government Insurance Fund. McCurdy stated that he and the Department of Finance supported the measure. In addition to the recommendation of the creation of a new fund, a new bank account will be established for the collection of all future premiums. The account will be managed by the Department of Labor outside of the EPR system.

Gary Molloy, Commissioner of the Department of Labor, said the proposed measure aims to enhance recovery for injuries or diseases arising in employment in the Virgin Islands under the Workers Compensation Administration. The main goal of the WCA is to minimize the adverse impact of such work-related incidents by providing fair and efficient public service for employers and employees. It has been extremely expensive, with WCA paying over $1,756,026.60 to providers and injured workers. $499,989.69 in disability payments has been paid in disability payments, $1,256,045,91 has been paid to providers. WCA received 416 claims from October 2023 to the present. Medical benefits account for more than half the total benefits paid in workers’ compensation claims.  There have been increased costs associated with facility services, physician charges, prescription drug costs, and improvement to technology. One provider’s office visit rose sharply from $249 dollars in 2023, to $449.51 this year, almost doubling in cost.  Molloy stated that the integration of the GIF and the WCF would correct the shortcomings of both divisions. The proposed measure was voted upon favorably and will be sent to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary for further consideration and action.

Senators present at today’s Committee meeting included Marise C. James, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Marvin A. Blyden, Diane T. Capehart, Dwayne M. Degraff, Kenneth L. Gittens, Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Javan E. James, Sr., Franklin D. Johnson, and Carla J. Joseph.

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