V.I. government moves forward with plans to construct new K-12 school on St. John

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ST. THOMAS - Having just closed one school on St. John, the V.I. government is moving forward to begin planning the construction of a new one.

The V.I. government is resuming plans to open a K-12 school on St. John that would be located at a more centralized location on-island and would relieve many of the students of their burdensome commutes.

It would be the only public school attended by secondary students on-island if built, a saving grace for the high school students who currently have to travel to and from St. Thomas daily by inter-island ferry. The school district spends more than $52,000 annually to transport more than 100 high school students back and forth for school.

All plans are considered preliminary at this point for the school, according to John Woods, principal of Jaredian Design Group. Jaredian is the consulting firm assisting the government in planning for the school.

Woods has presented existing plans to the public on at least one occasion thus far, introducing them to renderings of a 46-classroom campus located on a plateau wedged between Estates Adrian and Catherineberg, across from the George Simmons Housing Community along Centerline Road.

The school, as currently drawn, would take up 120,000 square feet, though it could be downsized in future renderings.

The campus also would include an auditorium, gymnasium, cafeteria, administration building and athletic field, according to the preliminary renderings. The current proposal would accommodate 500 total students, including primary and secondary students.

The rejuvenated discussion of a new K-12 school on St. John - a discussion that has come up in past administrations - preceded the closure of Guy Benjamin School in Coral Bay in late June.

The V.I. Education Department reduced the student population at Guy Benjamin in 2013 by eliminating the kindergarten and first-grade class at the elementary school because of the its low enrollment when compared with its Cruz Bay counterpart, Julius E. Sprauve School.

In June, the Education Department announced that it would have to close Guy Benjamin.

While the proposed site for the new school is not substantially closer to Coral Bay, it is less in town than the only other public school on St. John, Sprauve, according to V.I. National Park Superintendent Brion FitzGerald.

The current plot of land was suggested by the National Park Service.

The V.I. government will be negotiating with the park service to find a parcel of government land that will be acceptable for a land-swap with the park service.

The V.I. government would exchange a piece of land on St. John, St. Thomas or St. Croix of equal, or near to equal, value with the park service, FitzGerald said.

"We are cooperating fully, and we wish the territory well, but it's going to be a long process," he said.

The site for the new school is on the border of the park - near Centerline Road but built off the main thoroughfare - so it would not interrupt the park's flow, FitzGerald said.

The V.I. government will need to complete a long list of surveys before it can even swap the land, according to FitzGerald.

The V.I. government has completed a small portion of the natural and cultural survey required, according to a Government House statement released Tuesday.

"Based on the Phase I archaeological findings, a school can be accomplished on the site without interfering with the easternmost historical findings on the property," the statement said.

Archaeologists discovered some prehistoric findings in the area where the athletic field would be located, though the field is not expected to disrupt the findings, Woods said.

The V.I. government also must complete a hazardous material survey and an environmental impact survey.

Even if the softly sloping area that the government now is assessing meets all requirements, the government also will have to conduct the same surveys and meet the same requirements for the land that it chooses to give to the park service.

The V.I. Government will be responsible for the cost of all assessments, for both plots, FitzGerald said.

"We aren't looking to exchange the land, they are," he said.

No estimation other than "years" has been given for the length of time that will be needed to complete the swap, which leaves the groundbreaking of any school off the timeline altogether.

When the day comes, if it does, that a school is built, the community is expected to look forward to it, Woods said, based on the response of the public thus far.

In a 2008 demographic study on St. John, high school students and parents noted the challenges that they face daily as a result of the high school students having to attend school off-island.

High school students said that they are often excluded at school because they are from St. John. Woods said that about 120 high school students currently travel daily from St. John to attend Ivanna Eudora Kean High School in Red Hook, St. Thomas.

Some of the students said that they could not feel like they are part of the school because they are unable to be involved in extracurricular activities. Many of them have to worry about making the ferries before and after school, which makes it difficult to partake in clubs or athletics.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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