LAWMAKERS VOTE TO HOLD TWO BILLS IN COMMITTEE AS IT RELATES TO PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND UPDATED ON SCHOOL READINESS FOR SY 2019-2020

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ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development chaired by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, met Monday at the Capitol Building, and voted to hold in committee two bills regarding the Virgin Islands Department of Education (VIDOE). Lawmakers were also updated on school readiness for the 2019-2020 school year.

The two measures that were held in committee were: Bill No. 33-0008, proposed by Sen. Dwayne DeGraff, is an Act amending Title 17 Virgin Islands Code, chapter 11, section 133 relating to school monitors employed by the Department of Education to prohibit school monitors from carrying metal batons while on school premises and Bill No. 33-0019, sponsored by Sen. Janelle Sarauw, an Act amending title 17, chapter 7, section 61a of the Virgin Islands Code regarding the school year.

Regarding Bill No. 33-0008, VIDOE Assistant Commissioner Maria Encarnacion indicated that VIDOE does not support the measure because it is not in alignment with school policies. The use of wooden, metal, or rubber batons should be banned completely in the public schools. “It is important to state from the onset that VIDOE does not support violent or aggressive policing of students, including the use of metal batons, mace or similar devices that can perpetuate violence and cause irreparable harm. The use of batons is not consistent with the school environment the Department wishes to create.” However, Encarnacion noted that presently school monitors are provided with handcuffs, batons, and radios. In 2017, VIDOE provided training for school monitors on the proper use of batons and handcuffs.

Bill No. 33-0019 which seeks to divide the school year into two semesters, provides a funding source for additional expenses caused by the changes, require students to receive 180 hours of instruction, and it provides a beginning and ending date for the school year. Encarnacion stated that VIDOE supports the bill because the school calendar year will reflect academic institutions nationwide. “The school year will begin in the second week in August and end on the last Friday in May. Secondly, dividing the school year into two semesters allows for adequate instructional time and final semester exams to happen before the end of each semester. Lastly, 180 days of instruction is the accepted instructional time in most jurisdictions.” St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers President Carol Callwood mentioned that one of her major concerns is that teachers are compensated for the additional school days in conjunction with the changes of the school year. 

Separately, VIDOE Commissioner Racquel Berry-Benjamin shared an update on school readiness. The first day of public school is Tuesday, September 3, 2019. “While the 2019-2020 school year will look different, given the K-8 models, the shifting and sharing of campuses, is a result of the environment and infrastructural landscape of the Territory,” said Benjamin. She further indicated that funds for summer maintenance were delayed. However, maintenance was completed timely with no effect on the opening of the schools. Data for student preparedness reflects that the Territory-wide percentage gains in proficiency levels from SY2016-2017 to SY2018-2019 except for the 3rd grade in Mathematics and the 11th grade English Language Arts. To date, VIDOE hired 74 new teachers to ensure classroom coverage for both districts. Benjamin stated that VIDOE pays a renewal fee of $361,440 and a hosting fee of $192,780 for the Virgin Islands Visual Information System (VIVIS), an integrated data system that streamlines access to reports, evaluations, and research. Identifying funds to maintain VIVIS is an on-going process. Separately, Benjamin mentioned that VIDOE was awarded 12 grants. However, as of September 30, 2019, there are four grants that are expected to expire. VIDOE is collaborating with Bazilo Cobb Associates, a Third-Party Fiscal Agent to secure grants before the expiration date concluded Benjamin.