ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Disaster Recovery and Infrastructure chaired by Sen. Janelle K. Sarauw, convened in a meeting at the Capitol Building on Wednesday, and met with officials from the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE) to receive testimony on the comprehensive progress of the recovery/rebuild of the school and facilities infrastructure in the Territory. Additionally, lawmakers received an update from the Virgin Islands Department of Public Works (DPW) on the initiatives, projects, and processes that are related to the disaster recovery of the infrastructure in the Territory.
Presently, some of the major challenges facing VIDE is obligating permanent projects, the lack of an Emergency Maintenance Fund, and a Routine Maintenance Fund to address existing maintenance issues on 43 sites totaling 2,734,485 square feet Territory-wide. The annual cost of maintenance totals $13,617,736; according to VIDE Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin, who shared the recovery update. To better serve approximately the 10,000 PreK-12th grade student population, Benjamin noted that by consolidating the footprint from 43 sites to 23 sites, not only will maintenance become manageable but there is a fiscal reduction of $7 million annually. Regarding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Benjamin indicated that an estimated $160 million was obligated to VIDE for emergency repairs and to construct temporary buildings. Thus far, 74% of the obligated funding has been drawn down and the remaining 26% is committed. Much of the obligated funding was utilized to build temporary modular units for the Charlotte Amalie High School, Julius E. Sprauve School, and Arthur A. Richards Junior High School.
In terms of rebuilding schools and facilities, VIDE Chief Operation Officer Dr. Dionne Wells-Hendrington noted that the New Schools Construction Advisory Board was formed. One of the major accomplishments of the Advisory Board was the development of the Facilities Master Plan Guiding Principles (FMP) that are inclusive of the whole child, equity, and addressing the needs of all students, and integrating technology. The PreK-8th grades consolidation model was also implemented in FMP. Hendrington stated that the St. Croix District facilities will decrease from 22 to 9 and on the St. Thomas-St. John District from 24 to 12. However, Sen. Sarauw urged VIDE to conduct an analysis or a comprehensive study to determine the pros and cons of the consolidation of PreK-8th grades. “The concern stems from past experiences with block scheduling of 90 minutes which adversely impacted the arts and music programs. Then there was the implementation of Common Core learning without realizing cultural differences,” Sen. Sarauw said. “Data from an analysis is needed to show how consolidating PreK-8th grades best benefits the Virgin Islands because what may work for one place may not apply to another.”
Separately, The Virgin Islands Department of Public Works Commissioner Nominee Derek Gabriel stated that some of the major challenges plaguing the department are lack of sufficient staff such as engineers, technical experts, and construction managers. Despite staff shortages, DPW is managing over 200 disaster recovery projects. Gabriel mentioned that the Office of Highway Engineering received an estimated $68 million to manage the Federal Highway Administration Emergency Relief projects. To date, $22 million was expended and the balance is reserved for construction projects. The Office of Disaster Recovery Director Adrienne Williams-Octalien shared the breakdown of FEMA Public Funds. Thus far, $52.7 million was obligated to DPW and $38.8 million was expended. Management costs totaled $2.8 million, $47.2 million was utilized for debris removal post-storms, and $2.7 million was for permanent work.