ST. JOHN – Members of the Committee of the Whole, led by Senate President Novelle E. Francis Jr. convened in a meeting at the Cleone H. Creque Legislative Conference Room. Senators received testimony on the land exchange between the Government of the Virgin Islands and the National Park Service, and the proposed New Julius E. Sprauve PreK-12 school as a magnet school on St. John. Legislators cannot vote on the bill in the Committee of the Whole. However, action will be taken at the next scheduled Legislative Session.
Senator Francis expressed the complexity of the land exchange. “I can see disenfranchisement here. What side of history will we find ourselves on? It’s unfortunate how the federal government has its knees on our throats. For 50 years, our students have been disenfranchised,” Senator Francis said. “On St. John, there are no public high schools. The youths are simply asking to be educated at a location close to their homes. Not continue to toil just to get an education. It is a tough decision to make because I agree that we should not have to give up anything.”
Lawmakers considered BR 23-0590, An Act approving the conveyance by the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States to the United States of America, Department of Interior, acting by and through the National Park Service, of Tract No. 02-101 Whistling Island a/k/a Whistling Cay, Cruz Bay Quarter, St. John, Virgin Islands, in exchange for the Department of Interior, National Park Service’s conveyance to the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States of a portion of Tract No. 01-137A Catherineberg (Hammer’s Farm) Cruz Bay Quarter, St. John Virgin Islands, and directing the Government to deposit of the proceeds from the parcel exchange into the St. John Capital Improvement Fund.
The measure seeks for Whistling Cay, an undeveloped and uninhabited land owned by the Government of the Virgin Islands to remain the same under the real property exchange. The land exchange is inclusive of maintaining existing policies, procedures, and non-commercial fishing of surrounding waters. However, significant changes are anticipated to Estate Catherineberg to construct and establish the Sprauve preK-12 school.
Senators discussed the details of the proposal, including costs, assessments, and appraisals. According to the Government of the Virgin Islands’ preliminary agreement with the Virgin Islands National Park, an additional $210,000 must be made due to the Government of the Virgin Islands upon closing to ensure an equitable exchange of value. Senator Dwayne DeGraff inquired whether all the funding to build the school has been identified. In response, Dionne Wells-Hedrington, Commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Education noted that negotiations are ongoing and GVI must provide a ten percent match for all federally funded grants. Wells-Hedrington remarked in support of the measure because it has taken over 50 years of setbacks and challenges to have a complete grade range school in St. John.
Commissioner Wells-Hedrington spoke of the Estate Catherineberg property’s advantageous location which is easily accessible from both the Cruz Bay and Coral Bay primary town centers. Senator Alma Francis Heyliger queried the number of students residing in St. John for School Year 2022-2023. Wells-Hedrington stated that there are a total of 213 public school students currently residing in St. John. The anticipated student enrollment at Sprauve is over 400 and projects for population needs over many decades.
Testifiers shared their perspectives on the Park’s relationship with the St. John community and often mentioned childhood stories of the inconvenience of lengthy commutes from St. John to St. Thomas to attend school. Although residents cited the need for and importance of building a public school on St. John, collectively, many are against the National Park Service owning additional land. Separately, in lieu of the absence of the officials from the National Park Service and the DPNR Commissioner, there remained unanswered questions. Senator Donna Frett-Gregory expressed that the measure must be viewed holistically, not emotionally, irrespective of the school.
Senators present at the Committee of the Whole meeting are Novelle E. Francis, Jr., Angel L. Bolques, Jr., Diane T. Capehart, Samuel Carrión, Marvin A. Blyden, Dwayne M. DeGraff, Ray Fonseca, Alma Francis Heyliger, Donna A. Frett-Gregory, Kenneth L. Gittens, Marise C. James, Franklin D. Johnson, Carla J. Joseph, and Milton E. Potter. Senator Javan E. James, Sr. was excused.