Oct. 31, 2002 – On the last day of April, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull fired Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds after learning that the territory's appeal of the loss of accreditation of three high schools had been rejected.
Six months later, on the last day of October, and five days before Turnbull stands for re-election, the former commissioner, now Ruby Simmonds-Esannason, responded publicly for the first time to that action.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, she laid the blame for the loss of accreditation squarely at Turnbull's feet.
The Commission on Secondary Schools of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools notified the Education Department last November that it was terminating the accreditation of Central, Charlotte Amalie and Ivanna Eudora Kean High Schools, effective last Dec. 31. The territory's fourth public high school, Educational Complex, has never been accredited. The action came after years of warnings, inspections, and more warnings.
The department and the governor appealed the loss of accreditation, and on Feb. 28, Simmonds led a delegation of school officials to a hearing on the appeal. She and the others returned to the territory to say that they felt the hearing had been fair and that they were hopeful the decision would be reversed. However, at its semi-annual meeting at the end of April, the commission voted to uphold the November decision.
Simmonds-Esannason said on Thursday that she received a letter of four or five sentences from the governor informing her of her immediate termination. No explanation was included, she said. Now, after six months of hearing and reading references to herself as "having been fired by Turnbull," she said, she "decided that the public needed to know that being fired by Gov. Turnbull is not the most significant thing that occurred during my 33 years of public service."
In answer to reporters' questions, she denied having timed her public comments so close to election day so as to impact on Turnbull's re-election campaign. She said she had been off-island for several months, and this was the first time available to her since her return.
Simmonds-Esannason offered a narrative of her more than three years as Education commissioner, returning over and over to a steady refrain: The governor had not given her the support she needed to run the department. "He would not hire or promote key persons to work with me . . . in curriculum development, fiscal management and capital improvement," she said.
She described legislation she had supported which was geared to simplify and expedite hiring and purchasing for the schools, two areas in which the territory's shortcomings must be address as part of the new accreditation process. The Legislature passed the measure as part of the Omnibus Authorization Act of 2000, but the governor vetoed it.
"What you might not know, however," Simmonds-Esannason said Thursday, "is that I was chastised by the governor for supporting that same piece of legislation — which, ironically, was sponsored by his present running mate, Sen. Vargrave Richards."
The veto was subsequently overridden, but Simmonds-Esannason said her efforts to implement hiring were "met with opposition from Government House." Further legislation has since been passed, she noted, giving the schools more autonomy in hiring and spending.
Simmonds-Esannason concluded, "While I was the one sent home in the wake of the loss of accreditation, the role of the governor in this loss is absolutely clear … His failure to endorse legislation which would have empowered the Department of Education and his not allowing me to secure the necessary staff to assist with vital matters all resulted in the ultimate decision of the Middle States Association" to terminate the accreditation.
Some educators don't agree with Simmonds-Esannason' views on staffing. They say the Education Department is not short of, but overburdened with, staff. In an education forum led by Sen. Lorraine Berry in May, the University of the Virgin Islands released the findings of a study it had undertaken which basically called the department an unwieldy entity incapable of being operated efficiently.
The Education Department has been under the direction of an acting commissioner, Noreen Michael, who was Simmonds' second in command, since April 30. On Aug. 29, Turnbull submitted her nomination as commissioner to the Senate, and on Oct. 10 the Rules Committee approved the nomination.
Among those present at Thursday's press conference were several members of Simmonds-Esannason's family, some members of Turnbull's staff and former St. Thomas-St. John district schools superintendent Rosalia Payne, who also was fired by Turnbull this year. Juel Anderson, Education public relations officer, also was there. So was Alric Simmonds, Turnbull's deputy chief of staff, who sat at the back of the small room at Palms Court Harborview Hotel and declined afterward to comment on the former commissioner's statements.
However, Turnbull spoke for himself later in the afternoon. In a Government House release, he said: "The loss of accreditation of the three high schools, as well as the removal of Dr. Ruby Simmonds as commissioner of the Department of Education, is now history, and no useful purpose can be served by rehashing the issues surrounding the former commissioner's removal."
He concluded, "I continue to thank Dr. Simmonds for her years of service … and wish her well in all her future endeavors."
The governor had offered similar comments the day after he fired Simmonds, speaking at a Law Day luncheon hosted by Rotary Clubs and V.I. Bar Association luncheon. "I'm not going to bash anyone or say anything negative. I made a decision and I did what I felt was right to do," he said then. "The lady has been a senator and a professor of the university [of the Virgin Islands]. She has given much service to the community. Right now, it's just time to look ahead."
Asked by a reporter if she would consider assuming the post again under a different administration, Simmonds-Esannason replied, laughing, with a question of her own: "Is this Comedy Central?"
She declined to comment on her career plans. She said her current agenda is to spend more time with her family.

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