May 1, 2002 – Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, a career educator, gave Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds failing marks Tuesday afternoon after learning that the territory's appeal of the November decision to withdraw accreditation from its three accredited high schools had been turned down.
A Government House press release dated April 30 stated in its entirety:
"Governor Charles W. Turnbull has relieved Commissioner of Education Dr. Ruby Simmonds of her duties and responsibilities as Commissioner of the Department of Education effective immediately. The chief executive thanked Dr. Simmonds for her many years of service to the Government and people of the Virgin Islands and wished her the best in her future endeavors.
"Governor Turnbull has named Assistant Commissioner Dr. Noreen Michael as Acting Commissioner of the Department of Education until further notice."
The release, faxed to other news media Tuesday evening, was not received by the Source newspapers until it was requested Wednesday morning.
Turnbull acted after learning on Tuesday afternoon that the Commission on Secondary Schools of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools had rejected the territory's appeal of the commission's decision to withdraw the accreditation Charlotte Amalie, Central and Ivanna Eudora Kean High Schools. (See "Appeal fails; high schools are unaccredited".)
The territory's fourth public high school, Education Complex, has never been accredited.
The governor asked Simmonds, a fellow faculty member at the University of the Virgin Islands, to serve as his Education commissioner soon after his election in 1998. Turnbull himself held the position in a previous administration. Both are longtime stalwarts in the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands.
Simmonds' tenure at the head of the territory's largest and most costly department has been marked by a variety of problems — many of them of long years' standing, and many possibly beyond the ability of the person in the commissioner's seat to address effectively, given the department's bloated middle management staff, bureaucracy and the political nature of an appointed commissioner.
These have included chronic teacher shortages; inadequate staffing, maintenance and supplies for the schools; delays and cost overruns in the rebuilding of hurricane-damaged schools; consistently rock-bottom scoring by V.I. public school students on standardized tests in reading, math, science and other academic areas; yet-to-be-explained contamination of water at Joseph Sibilly Elementary School and its annex two and a half years ago; lack of compliance with federal accountability requirements regarding federal funding; the expenditure of federal funds for a sport utility vehicle for her use as commissioner; and the accreditation issue.
Rena Jacobs McBrowne, Turnbull administration spokeswoman, said Wednesday morning that Simmonds was informed of the governor's decision shortly after news of the rejected accreditation appeal was received at Government House.
Since last year, Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, chair of the Senate Education Committee, had been calling for Simmonds' removal. He has introduced legislation to revamp the public education system, replacing the commissioner and Education Department with a strong board of education that would hire and oversee school administrators.
Meantime, in Washington, D.C., Delegate Donna Christian Christensen and representatives of other territories met on Tuesday with the U.S. Education Department's new coordinator for insular affairs, Zula Toney and other federal education officials. According to a release from the delegate's office, they discussed the purview of the new office, created by President Bush's education reform package, the Leave No Child Behind Act.
Toney's duties include assessing the needs of the territories' education programs and providing guidance on federal education initiatives serving the insular areas. According to the release, a part of her job is to provide the territories technical assistance "in planning and coordinating their consolidated federal grants to ensure that federal funds are used to fulfill the administration's Leave No Child Behind policy."
Christensen cited the territory's low test scores in math and science and the need for "more efficient coordination of federal funds" in the territory, the release stated. "While the Virgin Islands has begun to address its issues as relates to federal funds to education, it would be of greater assistance if this new office could focus attention on our critical needs " she said.
McBrowne said on Wednesday that the governor's concern about the accreditation situation was well known, but the firing caught some by surprise.
"It's always a surprise with Charles Turnbull, because he's not the kind of person to let a person go like that," McBrowne said. "He liked the commissioner; he thought very highly of her. But I guess he did what he thought he had to do."
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.