Education officials defend $160M budget before Senate


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ST. THOMAS - Senators grilled V.I. Education Department officials Wednesday about staff changes, school closures and unfinished capital projects at the department's annual budget hearing.

The Education Department is the largest department in the government and receives the largest budget. As the territory has struggled with dwindling revenues, the department's budget has been reduced by $42 million in the last six years, according to Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.

For Fiscal Year 2015, the governor is recommending a $159.5 million General Fund budget appropriation, $2.7 million less than last year's appropriation.

The department also is slated to receive $42 million in federal grants for FY 2015.

Of the $159.5 million budget, $133.7 million is for salaries and benefits for 2,104 employees, Frett-Gregory said.

The rest of the budget break down: $2.9 million for materials and supplies; $8.2 million for utilities; and $14.5 million for mandatory costs including bussing contracts, janitorial and security services and school accreditation; and about $1.4 million for a local match to the federal Special Education grant.

Frett-Gregory said the amount budgeted for utilities is almost $6 million less than last year's budgeted amount because of the recent partnership with the V.I. Energy Office to retrofit the territory's schools for maximum energy efficiency.

Additionally, about $2.6 million is earmarked for Education in the miscellaneous section of the executive budget to fund various scholarships; the V.I. Career and Technical Education program; school maintenance; and interscholastic travel.

Frett-Gregory asked senators to remove the $630,000 appropriation for the career and technical education program from the department's miscellaneous section appropriations and give it directly to the V.I. Career and Technical Education board.

She also requested the Senate give the department a lump-sum budget so it can have the flexibility to move money around when needed.

The department had 14,953 students enrolled territorywide for the 2013-2014 school year, Frett-Gregory said. That number was split almost evenly between the districts with about 7,000 in St. Croix and about 7,900 in the St. Thomas-St. John District.

Central High School

Frett-Gregory told senators that according to the information she received from Public Works Commissioner Darryl Smalls, Central High School should be ready to open by the start of the school year.

The school was shut down in March when dozens of students were taken to the hospital after some type of noxious fumes - now blamed on a condemned sewage system - caused them to experience vomiting, headaches and dizziness.

After two weeks of students staying home, the department instituted double sessions at the Educational Complex campus, which continued through the end of the school year.

Public Works must replace a storm drain that was connected to a sewage system, she said. The contract for the project is in process and the work should begin in two weeks, Frett-Gregory said.

"I am not taking this matter lightly," she told senators. "I am doing everything in my power to put the pressure on to make sure that the school opens in September."

Textbooks

The department has no dedicated funding source to purchase new textbooks, the commissioner told senators Wednesday. She said $500,000 is needed to buy math workbooks and replacement texts in all subjects for the coming school year. Ideally, the department needs $300,000 a year to keep up with the territory's textbook needs.

In the coming year, the department is planning to adopt two new texts in science and social studies, each of which will cost about $1.5 million.

Frett-Gregory said she is drafting proposed legislation that will use the existing Education Initiative Fund to support textbook purchases.

Staff shortages

Frett-Gregory said 147 school-based vacancies must be filled to cover core areas such as English, math, social studies, foreign languages, physical education, special education, English as a second language and school nurses.

The V.I. Board of Education has been a roadblock to hiring, Frett-Gregory said, rejecting applicants who would be deemed qualified in other jurisdictions.

Of the 209 applicant credentials submitted to the board for review in the 2013-2014 school year, 114 were disapproved, Frett-Gregory said.

St. Croix reassignments

In the St. Croix District, 16 school administrators were reassigned to new locations for the coming school year, according to St. Croix Superintendent Gary Molloy.

While there has been some pushback, Molloy said all administrators were notified in March that reassignments would be coming for the next year. At the end of the school year, those being transferred were notified of their new assignments, he said. The notification process used does not violate the administrators' collective bargaining contracts, according to Molloy.

- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email alewin@dailynews.vi.

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