SENATOR DONNA FRETT-GREGORY OP-ED: On Establishing A School Authority In The USVI

SENATOR DONNA FRETT-GREGORY OP-ED: On Establishing A School Authority In The USVI

It’s no secret that our public-school student test scores have shown little to no improvement over the past few years. To make matters worse, the children of the U.S. Virgin Islands have experienced additional academic setbacks after surviving both Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and most recently, the current COVID-19 pandemic that has further derailed our educational system.

Now more than ever, we need the Department of Education (DOE) to focus solely on student achievement. That is why I am proposing Bill No. 33-0302 to establish a school facilities and maintenance authority. This entity will focus on the construction of new schools and the maintenance and repair of existing educational facilities in the territory.

Every year, schools reopen with overgrown greenery, leaky roofs, peeling paint, damaged bathrooms, and are ill-prepared to safely house our students, teachers, and support staff. We cannot continue to fail to provide a safe learning environment for our students year after year. We need radical change in our educational system. The creation of the school facilities & maintenance authority will relieve DOE from the burden of managing school construction, maintenance, and repair. Now, the focus can be on curriculum development and student achievement. The authority would be a separate entity from the DOE whose sole focus would be on the management of our educational infrastructure in a coordinated and planned fashion.

This type of educational reform — removing infrastructure management from the responsibility of DOE — is not new. When I came before the 30th Legislature for confirmation as Commissioner of the Department of Education, I shared my vision for such a structure after learning that many school districts across the country had already implemented this type of reform, including New York City, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

The DOE is responsible for the USVI government’s largest budget, numerous schools on our three islands, and all aspects of public education in the Territory. This wide breadth of responsibility lends itself to areas of dysfunction, and the current state of our school grounds and facilities are solid proof that school maintenance has not been a priority. It’s time for the U.S. Virgin Islands to get on board. The timely and cost-effective management of our education facilities must be a priority.

Opponents may say that creating another entity is wasteful and costly and will ask, “Where will the funding come from?” This is a valid concern and has been carefully addressed in the legislation. Bill No. 33-0302 mandates that all school maintenance funding be transferred from the DOE to the new authority. This is in addition to utilizing the already available resources and new resources to stand up the operations and to ensure the authority is sustainable. Even further, all steps to minimize spend, such as utilizing existing government property to house the new authority, have been explored and included. Simply put, the authority will get all maintenance funding currently with DOE and more, much more.

But it is important to note that I am not hard and fast on it being an “authority” per se. My office is open to suitable alternatives that maintain the integrity of what this legislation is trying to accomplish for our children. My only hope is that the Governor and his team are just as willing to explore these possibilities.

As Chair of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, I am committed to education reform in our territory. It’s time we make student success a priority and relieve the Department of Education from the responsibility of fixing toilets and walkways. We need radical change—we’ve been talking for decades and now is the time to act. I look forward to stakeholder engagement and meaningful discourse with my colleagues on this measure. Our children and school personnel deserve it.