- CROIX–The Committee on Education and Workforce Development, chaired by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, met on Tuesday in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Chambers, to consider two measures, including Bill No.33-0302, an Act amending the V.I. Code to establish the Virgin Islands School Construction and Maintenance Authority.
Racquel Berry-Benjamin, Commissioner, Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDE), said the purpose of the Authority is to effectuate and ensure that the children of the Territory have a safe, efficient learning environment and to be responsible for the functions of regular and timely maintenance, inspection, construction, renovations, repairs, and modernization of educational facilities.
According to Bill sponsor, Sen. Frett-Gregory, the governance of the Authority by the Virgin Islands School Facilities and Maintenance Authority Board of Directors will be composed of seven members. The members include the Commissioner of Education or the Commissioner’s designee, and six appointed by the Governor. The six members, she added, should consist of two former educators, one from each district; one current educator, two engineers, one from each district; and one member with business or finance experience. The Board shall elect a chairperson, and at no time shall the Commissioner of education or designee serve as the chairperson.
Commissioner Berry-Benjamin indicated that the lack of adequate funding and a master plan to properly maintain and upkeep VIDE schools and facilities over the decades have contributed to the rapid deterioration of many school buildings. She appreciates the efforts of Sen. Frett-Gregory in seeking to address this issue.
The Authority would be funded through the Education Initiative Fund ($1.5 million), the St. Croix Capital Improvement Fund ($250,000), the St. John Improvement Fund (100,000), and revenues from governmental building rentals, in conjunction with the Department of Property and Procurement. “These funding sources only begin to provide a small portion of the necessary funds needed to carry out the Authority’s purpose, much less the maintenance and capital projects,” said Berry-Benjamin. “The elephant in the room, she said, still appears to be insufficient funds,” she concluded.
Jack McCarthy, Deputy Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), stated their mission to partner with Massachusetts communities to support the design and construction of educationally appropriate, flexible, sustainable, and cost-effective public school facilities. The creation of the MSBA has allowed the VIDE and Secondary Education to dedicate all its resources and expertise to enhancing student learning and academic achievement while the MSBA focuses on new school construction and renovation projects. The MSBA and DESE maintain a close working relationship, and this partnership has allowed Massachusetts to be a national leader in public education.
Lorraine Grillo, President, and CEO of, New York City School Construction Authority (SCA), said SCA was established as a public benefit corporation tasked with managing the acquisition, design, and construction of NYC schools and its rehab existing educational infrastructure. She added that every year, SCA visit every one of their 1,500 school buildings with a team of architects and engineers. One of their tools, she said, is their yearly demographic projections and have demographers who update reports yearly and project out for five to ten years. These reports inform where they look for sites to build new schools and addition to existing schools. The SCA has also worked throughout the pandemic to create testing centers and ensure every school had proper ventilation.
Jenifer O’Neal, Director, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said the Bill speaks of the implementation of a School Maintenance Board; however, the costs that would be associated with this Board are costs that may be deemed unnecessary, especially at this time, during the COVID-19 pandemic, where there is much uncertainty, and the tourism sector has been decimated. Because of this, she added she does not feel that the creation of yet another Board would be in the best interest of the Government of the Virgin Islands. or achieve the intent of this legislation.
According to O’Neal, she would recommend that VIDE’s maintenance division be transferred to the Department of Public Works (DPW), in full, inclusive of personnel and funding. She further suggests that an Assistant Commission for Maintenance be funded to provide oversight for this new Division and any other staff that may be necessary to carry out the mandate of ensuring all schools are maintained. For the above reasons, she cannot support the Bill until an amendment is made to allow a transfer and personnel to DPW to achieve this measure’s intent.
Jeanette Smith-Barry, Former Insular Superintendent and 13 years principal of Charlotte Amalie High School on St. Thomas, said, Administrators should spend their time being instructional leaders and managing their time, programs, and process that are essential in school, not handling repair and maintenance. She added that an entity like the School Facilities and Maintenance Authority could relieve administrators of unnecessary burdens and help ensure that all the persons addressing repair and maintenance concerns are suitably trained for the scope of work required. Smith-Barry spoke in full support of 33-0302 and commended Sen. Frett-Gregory for proposing the measure.
The Committee meeting continued with the consideration of Bill No. 33-0239, an Act amending V.I. Code, relating to the permanent closure of public schools, sponsored by Sen. Myron D. Jackson.
The morning portion of Tuesday’s meeting were senators: Chairwoman Donna Frett-Gregory, Kurt Vialet, Javan James, Sr., Janelle Sarauw, Steven Payne, Sr., Myron Jackson, and Stedmann Hodge, Sr.