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SENATORS GET SCHOOLS UPDATE IN PRIVATE MEETING

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April 2, 2003 – Top Education Department officials told lawmakers at a brief and unannounced meeting on Wednesday what they have done to advance several programs designed to improve the way the school system works.
The 40-minute meeting was held at the request of Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, vice chair of the Senate Education and Youth Committee. Other members of the Senate majority were invited. Sens. Louis Hill was present, and the committee chair, Sen. Ronald Russell, took part by teleconference from St. Croix. Sen. Roosevelt David sent a representative.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael headed the delegation from her department.
Members of the Senate minority, the public and the news media were not invited, Malone said. He said it was not a secret meeting, however, but a fact-gathering mission in advance of a public hearing set for April 23.
One topic expected to air at that hearing is the federal compliance agreement. The agreement is important, Malone said, because $30 million in federal funds could be lost if the three-year deal with the U.S. Department of Education falls short. The compliance agreement is also seen as instrumental to local implementation of the federal 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.
(For background on the compliance agreement, see "V.I. posts education pact compliance data online".)
Senators also may get an update at the April 23 hearing on certification of teachers and paraprofessionals. School officials attending a recent Board of Education meeting said 20 percent of the teaching staff must be certified by the end of this year. Lawmakers at Wednesday's meeting were told that Education Department personnel records show that 15 percent already meet the requirements for certification.
Bids were accepted this week on developing a master plan for the school system, school officials said, and federal grant funding coming into the territory is being spent on time.
Malone said he was pleased to note that improvements in the management of federal grants had been acknowledged by the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General when the subject came up during a discussion later in the day on Wednesday. Arnold van Beverhoudt, the inspector general's regional manager, "said it had improved significantly," Malone said.
Michael afterward called the meeting "fruitful." Malone agreed, but pointed to several areas where he said the department needs help.
School security is unfunded, he said. So are federal mandates for teacher certification programs, which will make it difficult to meet certification deadlines. "Noreen Michael said they identified some funds, but there is not nearly enough to certify all teachers and paraprofessionals by 2005," he said later Wednesday.
Education also missed a March 31 deadline set by the Office of Management and Budget to submit its plans for re-accreditation of three public high schools. Last month, a department spokesperson said the process had been delayed while officials of the accrediting body, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, reviewed self-assessment reports submitted by the V.I. school accreditation team in January.
"The department has been late, but never more than five working days," according to a Legislature release issued after the meeting.
Hill said he wants to see Education change the way it repairs and maintains the schools during summer break. Based on his observations as the immediate past St. Thomas-Water Island administrator, he said, the time to solicit contractors is now, so crews can get to work as soon as the school year ends.
"Beginning this month, Requests for Proposals and scope of work documents should be advertised," Hill said, "so that whenever the funding has been identified, contractors can get to work right away. We must be more aggressive and creative in order to accomplish these projects in a timely manner."
Education officials at the meeting in addition to Michael were Rita Howard, assistant Education commissioner; district superintendents William Frett of St. Thomas-St. John and Terrence T. Joseph of St. Croix; Lorna Williams-Sutton, Michael's special assistant; and Juel Anderson, public relations director.

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