Feb. 7, 2002 – The only thing participants in Wednesday night's Senate committee hearing on public education could agree on is the need for change in the system. Beyond that, most witnesses and lawmakers lined up on either side of the long-standing debate of who should be in charge.
The debate centered on the proposed Public Education Reform Act, which calls for a transfer of day-to-day operations for the public school system from the Education Department to a revamped Board of Education.
Among the bill's sponsors are Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Sen. President Almando "Rocky" Liburd.
Lawmakers supporting the bill say poor student performance, as demonstrated by low standardized test scores, and the recent loss of accreditation for three of the territory's four public high schools are among the reasons they want to see new a reorganization.
Jn Baptiste said he scheduled Wednesday night's public hearing and one held Monday night on St. Croix to give members of the community a chance to express their concerns. It was an opportunity seized by many, generating more than four hours of debate at the St. Thomas session, which drew about 60 attendees.
Jorge Galiber, Board of Education chair, urged support of the proposal. "We believe the bill before us, finely tuned … will allow the public to make education a true priority," he said, speaking for the board. "We believe with a legislative mandate the Board of Education can focus on providing a quality education for our children."
But others openly doubted the board's potential to do a better job of running the system.
"Yes, I agree there is a critical need for school reform," retired educator Mavis Brady said, but in her view the bill is not the answer.
Brady said turning control of the education system over to the board would give "unbridled power" to a small group of elected officials that very few people vote for. Candidates for the board often win their seats with a handful of votes.
She also said the transfer of authority would create "a potential for conflict between the governor, legislators, unions, the board and anyone who has a vested interest in public education."
Some of those speaking at the hearing said the debate over who should control education in the Virgin Islands has been going on for the last 20 years. Others, such as St. Thomas-St. John teachers union president Vernelle DeLagarde, said education reforms are already under way and should be given a chance.
DeLagarde said the union already is working with the department to put more control for day-to-day school operations in the hands of principals through site-based management. Site-based management, including budgeting, is one of the reforms called for by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting organization for the local high schools.
"There are currently two schools operating under site-based management," DeLagarde said, naming the E. Benjamin Oliver and Edith Williams Elementary Schools on St. Thomas. She said she would like to see the new management system put in place in all of the public schools, especially the high schools.
A number of senators on the committee waived their option in the question-and-answer period, instead offering statements of opinion on the matter.
"If we put a board in place, what will change?" Sen. Carlton Dowe asked. "If we have to rely on other departments — Property and Procurement, Public Works, Finance — it doesn't matter what kind of board you put in place, nothing will happen."
Liburd attempted to redirect the discussion by asking if the board were to take control, should the members be elected or appointed? Most of those who answered said they would prefer a combination.
Galiber took the issue a step further, saying if the board were made up of elected and appointed members, some standards would have to be set. "You've got to have some credentials in education," he said.
Sen. Lorraine Berry said she opposed the notion of disbanding the Education Department but also said some sort of change is inevitable. As an alternative to replacing the entire system, Berry invited the school board members to cite specific situations they think they could improve if they had more control over them.
"I believe they should submit that, not govern" the educational system, she said. "What powers are they seeking now that they don't have, that they think could improve the education process?"
One of the last people to offer thoughts Wednesday night on changing public education at the top pointed out that he also had been one of the first. Gilbert Sprauve, University of the Virgin Islands professor, recalled that he was among those who raised the debate two decades ago. Sprauve said it was frustrating so see how little progress had been made, and that some of the parties opposed to change had spent years defending a system that had continued to fail.
"I feel that inertia is the biggest problem in the Virgin Islands," he said.
All seven committee members — Sens. Adelbert Bryan, Douglas Canton Jr., Dowe, Emmett Hansen II, Jn Baptiste, David Jones and Liburd — were present at the hearing. Also present were Sens. Berry, Donald "Ducks" Cole, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Norma Pickard-Samuel.


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