ST. THOMAS – The Committee on Finance, chaired by Senator Kurt Vialet continued budget hearings today, in the Earle B. Ottley Legislative Hall. The agenda consisted of the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget proposals for the Virgin Islands Board of Education, the Virgin Islands Career & Technical Education Board, Virgin Islands Board of Education, and the Government Employees Retirement System.
Dionne Wells-Hedrington, Ph.D., the Commissioner Nominee for the Department of Education delivered testimony. The recommended appropriation for the Department totaled $177,210,943 for Fiscal Year 2023. This includes $118,915,349 for personnel services; 51,038,094 for fringe benefits, $5,000,000 for utilities, and $2,257,500 for miscellaneous items. The recommended budget for Fiscal Year 2023 is $4,693,441 or 3% lower than the $181,904,384 appropriated under the General Fund for Fiscal Year 2022. In addition to the $177.2 Million that has been recommended for Fiscal Year 2023, an additional $725,000 in other miscellaneous appropriations for the Department.
The total enrollment for the 2021-2022 school year was 10,234 students. This was 5,091 in the St. Croix District, and 5,143 in the St. Thomas-St. John District. Public school enrollment has steadily declined in the territory during the past 11 years. 3,317 students were enrolled in Grades 9-12 for the 2021-2022 school year. There were 716 students enrolled in the 12th Grade at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. 683 students graduated in May 2022, a total of 95%, 354 in the St. Croix District and 329 in the St. Thomas-St. John District. An additional 8 students were eligible for graduation in the St. Thomas-St John District and 2 in the St. Croix District after completing outstanding credit requirements.
There were 2,172 full time equivalent positions. There were 125 filled exempt positions, 16 vacant exempt positions and 1,972 filled classified positions. There were 83 vacant classified positions. There are 1,028 active employees in the St. Thomas-St. John District and 1,114 active employees in the St. Croix District. There are currently 184 total vacancies, 89 in the St. Thomas-St. John district and 95 in the St. Croix District. There were 1,955 classified employees and 187 unclassified/exempt employees. Wells-Hedrington spoke of various difficulties in the Department, stating that historically, funding has been minimal to maintain the current state of school facilities. Based on calculations provided by the Office of Insular Affairs in 2016, it would cost the Department $20 Million to maintain the footprint that existed at that time. Further challenges in the Department included a large number of resignations, retaining and attracting new staff, and competitive salaries.
Kyza A. Callwood, Ph.D., the chairman of the Virgin Islands Board of Education delivered testimony. The recommended budget for the Board of Education for Fiscal Year 2023 is $2,272,030. A 3% increase will be approved for the Executive Director and Director of Finance in Fiscal Year 2023. The Virgin Islands Board of Education is an independent agency of the Government of the Virgin Islands. There are nine members of the board, and the members are elected in two legislative districts, four in the St. Croix District, and four in the St. Thomas-St. John District. One at large member is a resident of St. John. The four-year term for the board is staggered. There are 19 budgeted positions. There are four employees in the St. Croix office and 9 persons in the St. Thomas Office. There are six vacancies, of which four are exempt.
Michael T. Francois, Ph.D., the Chairman of the Virgin Islands Career and Technical Education Board delivered testimony. The VIBCTE currently has seven of the nine members as mandated by the Virgin Islands Code. Two more members are needed from the island of St. Thomas and one from St. John. The office currently operates with an Executive Director, and three other staff members, 2 in St. Croix and one in St. Thomas. The Board will search for a Program Monitor to complete the St. Thomas staff. However, no information was received for the proposed Fiscal Year 2023 Budget. The Fiscal Year 2022 budget totaled $763,587. The Fiscal Year 2023 Recommendation was $734,683, according to Post Audit. There are four employees. One employee, the Executive Director, is exempt. Goals for the board include CTE instructor certification and professional development. There was a 30% increase in certified CTE instructors, and now more than 70% are certified. 280 students were enrolled in CTE programs, among the programs are health science, hospitality, or culinary arts, and 144 students studied for National Career for Construction Education Research credentials like carpentry, electricity, or welding. 39 programs of study in the US Virgin Islands schools are identified as CTE, and 21 are nationally trade certified via NAF (formerly the National Academy Foundation), NCCER, or other national certifications.
Finally, Austin L. Nibbs, the Administrator of the Government Employees Retirement System delivered testimony. The Government Employees Retirement System is not required to submit a budget to the Legislature. The approval of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget is subject to approval by the Board of Trustees. According to Post Audit, the projected 2023 budget for the GERS totaled $15,658,500. This includes $5,344,468 for personnel services and $2,219,174 for fringe benefits. There are 75 positions according to Post Audit. As of the July 29, 2022, payroll, the GERS paid 8,734 retirees and beneficiaries. 320 retirees were added to the payroll between October 1, 2021, to July 29, 2022. 266 retirees were removed from the payroll during the same period. The total amount paid in benefits from October 1, 2021, to July 29, 2022, was $217,753,268.19.
The average amount paid in benefits to retirees and beneficiaries is approximately $22 Million. The refunding of contributions has negatively affected the cash flow of the GERS. This number totaled $8.8 million in 2021, and $6.4 million in 2022. As of July 30, 2022, GERS has an active membership of 8,928 members. This includes 6,341 central government and 2,587 semi-autonomous agency employees. As of July 31, 2022, the member loans portfolio consists of 1,333 personal loans, from 747 active members and 586 retirees. This totaled $11.6 million, and 75 mortgages totaling $3.9 million, which was a total portfolio of $15.5 million.
Senators present at today’s committee hearing included Kurt Vialet, Marvin A. Blyden, Samuel Carrión, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Javan E. James, Sr., Janelle K. Sarauw, Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Alma Francis Heyliger, Kenneth L. Gittens, Carla J. Joseph, Franklin D. Johnson, and Genevieve R. Whitaker.