Maintenance crews work hard to ready schools for start Tuesday
Published: September 2, 2013
Font size: [A] [A] [A]
ST. THOMAS - It was all hands on deck last week as the V.I. Education Department wrapped up repairs and maintenance work to ready schools for the start of classes Tuesday.
Maintenance workers were still painting, installing bathroom stalls and repairing roof leaks at many of the territory's 40- and 50-year-old schools Thursday and Friday.
To cope with the steady decline in funding during the last six years, the department has shrunk maintenance budgets in order to avoid cutting expenses related to instruction and programs.
The budget cuts have forced the department to rethink how it plans and orchestrates maintenance, according to Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory.
The department has shifted from performing the bulk of maintenance and repairs during the summer months to continuously trouble-shooting during the school year. Only those projects large enough to disrupt instruction get deferred to the summer months. This allows the department to spend less of its waning funds on maintenance as things do not deteriorate as much during the school year and result in more costly summer repair projects, Frett-Gregory said.
Maintenance directors for both school districts said that being restricted to a territory-wide budget of about $4.8 million per year calls for strict prioritization of repairs and upgrades tied to health, safety and security over aesthetic improvements.
In its school assessments for school year 2012-13, the Board of Education cited numerous deficiencies on campuses, including lack of kitchen equipment, leaky roofs, unkempt entrance areas, accumulated garbage and dysfunctional air-conditioning units.
Education Department officials said last week that the meager maintenance budget means not all of the aging campuses' deficiencies can be addressed prior to the start of the year, but they had applied all of the $1.4 million allocated to each district for summer maintenance over the past three months to correct some of the most glaring problems.
Gladys Abraham Elementary Principal Lisa Hassell-Forde eagerly showed off the school's new oven and a new sound booth and refurbished stage in the cafetorium during a school facilities tour Thursday. The school's bathrooms have been updated, with new toilets, tiles and mirrors, and the leaking roof in the library has been repaired. Seven classrooms have had air-conditioning units installed after Frett-Gregory toured the school last year and decided that the hot environment was not conducive to learning, Hassell-Forde said.
Joseph Sibilly, deputy superintendent of the St. Thomas-St. John District who is in charge of maintenance for the district, said the school was one of seven to receive upgrades to electronically monitored gates for security since January. Concrete steps leading up from the school's garden have replaced old, rotted wooden steps, Sibilly said.
At Addelita Cancryn Junior High, Frett-Gregory remarked on the new coat of salmon pink paint all over the campus as maintenance workers continued to paint railings.
"This is a major facelift in this school," she said.
She said that the school had come a long way since she attended, when students would have to be sent home because the unfilled ground caused the facility to sink after heavy rains.
Sibilly said old, rusted water lines continue to plague the district, especially at Addelita Cancryn, where the outdated lines cannot handle blockages. Occasionally, students will flush T-shirts, paper and other items down the system, creating the blockages. Other challenges include the theft of copper wires from exterior air conditioning
Students labored during the summer to build a new bungalow outside the Edith Williams Alternative Academy, principal Mario Francis said. The project was a partnership with the V.I. Labor Department. Students in the summer program earned minimum wage and received carpentry instruction from Francis and members of My Brother's Workshop after completing two hours of reading and math classes.
Francis said this is the second year the student labor project had allowed hands-on participation in school maintenance. Students who participated became committed to seeing that the fruits of their labors were treated properly by other students once they returned to school, Francis said.
William Matthew, director of maintenance for the St. Croix school district, said that he estimates that the department would need to spend about $1.5 million per school to overhaul and upgrade facilities.
Some schools have not had wiring and plumbing in keeping with Virgin Islands codes for years, and another aspect of funding constraints is that Matthew operates a "skeleton crew" of about 15 maintenance workers spread across the district's schools. Non-competitive salaries make it difficult to fill vacancies with qualified professionals, he said.
Matthew's main priority heading into the 2013-2014 school year was Alfredo Andrews Elementary School, where the parking lot had to be refurbished and 46 new spaces added as part of a flood-mitigation project and air conditioning ducts in the lobby were replaced. Crews erected a new 6-foot fence and installed swills to direct rain water, which used to build up and cause flooding so severe that classes sometimes had to be cancelled, he said.
More minor roof repairs at the school would be carried out during the school year, Matthew said.
"All the schools need improvement, but we had to concentrate on that school to secure it, especially the drainage," Matthew said.
Other summer maintenance projects included installing new gutters in front of Elena Christian Junior High School, retiling Claude O. Markoe Elementary School's library and fixing roof leaks at Evelyn Williams Elementary School.
"The challenge is roof leaks. That's the problem we are going to face across the district because we have not been able to address any roof in any facility in its entirety. What we do is, because of limited funding, we patch and we patch and we patch. There are always going to be issues, and that is a big challenge," Matthew said.
- Contact Amanda Norris at 714-9104 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.