Calling facility maintenance of the territory’s aging public school buildings a “pressing and vexing issue,” Sharon McCollum, PhD, commissioner-designee of the Virgin Islands Department of Education said Saturday at an education board meeting that if the department’s “fiscal challenges persist, it may very well involve the collapsing of schools to minimize costs and maximize efficiency.”
In her report to the board, Dr. McCollum stressed, however, that this option would come only as a last resort in her pursuit of improving the territory’s public schools facilities.
“Currently, no decisions have been made regarding school closures, as we must first conduct extensive assessments and deliberate on solutions,” she said.
Dr. McCollum went on to say that correcting the longstanding maintenance issues at the territory’s school buildings would not be a quick fix.
“Bearing in mind the financial and timing factors involved, this will not all be addressed in a single year; in fact, I’m being very candid with you, it cannot be addressed in a single year,” she said.
However, she said, “Efforts will be made continuously, especially with the schools that are most challenged, and where the safety and health of school communities are impacted.”
The commissioner-designee’s remarks come on the heels of the current three-week closure of the Alexander Henderson Elementary School for repairs due to mold and fiberglass issues at the St. Croix school.
At a meeting held in February to inform parents of the school’s temporary closure and announce the distribution of Henderson students to other schools while repairs were being conducted at the school, freshman Sen. Kurt Vialet, a longtime St. Croix educator, told VI Consortium there is a critical need for maintenance workers to be hired.
“Right now, I think the focus of the Department of Education must be the need to hire maintenance personnel at all schools so that small problems don’t become huge problems,” he said. “You have a small like, a trickle, you don’t address it, and eventually it’s a river. We need that maintenance staff, on the school site, with specific directives that they are to look at, repair what they can, and what they can’t, they need to contract out as quickly as possible.”
Vialet continued to voice his frustrations, stating that many of the challenges territory school buildings are facing today could have long been remedied or even prevented.
“Because there are some problems that could have been fixed by spending ten or twenty thousand dollars, but we said we didn’t have any money, and then we wait until it becomes a problem that’s going to cost us one hundred to two hundred thousand dollars,” he said. “So, we need to systematically go through all the schools and fix those areas that need to be fixed now to stop this mold growing up.”
During questioning by board members at Saturday’s education board meeting, Dr. McCollum added that it was necessary to consider the number of students enrolled at schools, as well as maximize class sizes when assessing facilities needs. She said such efforts are currently underway at schools on St. Croix.
“In the St. Croix District, one of the things that we’re doing presently is we’re assessing the amount of vacant classrooms that we have on campuses,” she explained. “That is going to drive our vision over there in terms of how we’re going to address the facilities needs of schools.”
Furthermore, the commissioner-designee said the department is looking at “the overall population of our schools,” to see if it is “feasible, in many cases, to keep some sites open [or else], we may have to consolidate.”
Dr. McCollum, who has been on the job for close to three months, said she wished to exercise caution in speaking on the matter so as not to cause public alarm.
“I am very cautions, in terms of how I speak about this publicly, because I don’t want to cause hysteria,” she said, adding, “That’s why I’m being very guarded about what schools and what our approach will be.”
With that, Dr. McCollum emphasized her department’s commitment to involving the board of education and all stakeholders as school facilities maintenance needs are being addressed.
“I have no hesitation about saying to all of you that the board will be involved in this,” she said. “Once we make our decisions and move forward, we realize that the board needs to be involved.”
She continued: “The public, of course, we have to go through that. We also have to deal with the unions. There is a myriad of layers that we must approach, but we want to say we will be coming forward in a timely manner and involving all stakeholders in this.”
Dr. McCollum said she recently met with Governor Kenneth Mapp and that “he is aware of the budget constraints” her department is facing. Furthermore, this week, she is expected to meet with Office of Management and Budget officials.
“So, I’m hoping and praying, and I’m going to ask everyone in this room to pray that those numbers change for the better,” Dr. McCollum said.
Feature Image: St. Croix education officials attend Education Board meeting via videoconferencing at the Curriculum Center on St. Croix, March 14.