May 25, 2005 – The chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education said he is weighing the prospects of suing the Department of Education on behalf of public school students, parents, and teachers.
Sen. Liston Davis said filing a class action lawsuit against the Education Department is a measure he would rather not take, but something has to be done to spur progress on addressing a long list of school building problems.
"To date, little or nothing has been done to move these projects forward," Davis said in a statement issued earlier this week. "Additionally, three months after I did an extensive tour of the territory's schools and held public hearings to highlight the maintenance needs, the department had done little to correct these problems."
The committee chairman said he was particularly frustrated at the lack of information over progress in addressing 15 school repair priority projects laid out in a letter sent from Education Commissioner Noreen Michael to District Superintendent William Frett. Included on that list were repairs to the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, which suffered damage to several classrooms during an arson-related fire last November. There was also a list of repair projects related to the re-accreditation of the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas and Central High School on St. Croix, including repairs to leaky roofs, parking lot resurfacing, electrical repairs and construction of an athletic track for Eudora Kean High.
The priority list also included plumbing problems at the Charlotte Amalie High School; roof repairs for the Julius E. Sprauve School on St. John and stabilization of the Conrad building at the J. Antonio Jarvis Elementary School.
When education officials appeared before a hearing of the Senate Education Committee last week, the only promises made by Michael included repair projects related to high school accreditation. She said some projects, like those at Kean High, could be completed by September. Other problems, like the electrical woes at Central High, were under study, according to Michael. Those studies were expected to be completed by June.
But officials told Davis and other members of the Education Committee it was unlikely that any projects that were not related to accreditation would make any progress for at least the next three years. Even in the case of Cancryn Junior High, the commissioner said progress had only reached the design phase.
In his statement issued Tuesday, Davis said he was "totally disgusted" with the lack of progress.
"Every time I seek an update on the progress being made to make schools more habitable for teaching and learning, I hear nothing but excuses from education officials on why progress in not being made," he said.
But Davis, himself a former V.I. education commissioner, said he would wait through the summer recess to see what happens next. Summer is the traditional time for repair and maintenance projects in the school system, although over the past two or three years, education maintenance managers have said repair work is now being carried out year round.
While he waits, the chairman of the Education Committee said he will direct legal researchers in the Senate to examine the terms of a federal compliance agreement to see if there are any remedies there for distressed school buildings. He said he will also talk to parent-teacher associations territory-wide to see if there is any interest in joining a class action lawsuit against the Education Department.
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