Nov. 30, 2005 Repairs to local public schools are well underway, Noreen Michael, Education commissioner, said at a press conference called Wednesday to discuss school maintenance.
The department has been under fire for months because many of the schools were in serious disrepair when the schools opened int he early fall. Exacerbating the lack of repairs was a problem with excessive mold at several schools.
Michael said significant improvements have been made to the Addelita Cancryn Junior High School on St. Thomas and the John H. Woodson Junior High School on St. Croix, as well as the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas.
Woodson has been closed since mid September due to mold. Students at the school had to be moved to another junior high school and split sessions implemented to handle the additional Woodson pupils.
Michael said repairs have been expedited since Gov. Charles W. Turnbull declared public exigency for schools in October, allowing Education to sidestep the competitive bidding process.
In a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Liston Davis, a former Education commissioner, said he is concerned about this "curtailed bidding process" because "politically friendly" companies are being awarded the construction and repair contracts.
"This is why we should have a school construction and maintenance authority," Davis said. "We can get together a group of qualified professional contractors and developers and they can use their expertise to deal with the schools." Davis said he had already spoken to Michael and other government officials about the idea, and Davis is currently drafting a bill to put it such an authority in place.
Davis, who is chairman of the Senate Education, Culture and Youth Committee, toured all of the territory's public schools in the early fall.
Detailing improvements which have been made so far at the schools, Michael said Education has completed construction on a new classroom wing at Cancryn, and is currently in the process of installing new furniture, instructional materials and computers so students can occupy the space within the next week. The wing was burnt down more than a year ago when vandals set several fires in the school.
Michael said work on the pedestrian bridge next to the school which was rendered useless in October 2003 when it was stuck by a dump truck — is ongoing. She did not describe exactly what has been accomplished.
Davis said he has been asking Michael about progress on the bridge for over a year, and has not been able to obtain a more detailed answer.
Michael said Education — specifically Brent Blyden, the department's territorial maintenance director — will continue to work on Cancryn's other problems, which include electrical brownouts, poor water pressure, pigeon droppings and landscaping deficiencies.
Michael said Education is currently in the process of moving ahead with three major capital projects at Ivanna Eudora Kean High School — fixing cracks in roofs and walls of several school buildings, constructing covered walkways from various classrooms to the administration building, and designing an athletic track and field.
At a Senate meeting in October, Kenneth Mapp, executive director of the Public Finance Authority said $2 million from the General Fund was appropriated in 2003 for the construction of the school's track and field. Mapp said at that time Education had not yet used the money, which could still be drawn down.
Despite having the $2 million allocated from the General Fund, Mapp said in October that Education assumed the project was slated to be paid for by the PFA, since it was a capital project. Because of this, Mapp said the department gave the go ahead to Caribbean Professional Consultants — a firm contracted by the PFA to undertake other improvement projects at IEKHS — to draw up an architectural engineering design plan for the track. Mapp put the brakes on the project in August.
At Wednesday's meeting, Michael said Education has completed a comprehensive action plan which she distributed — to address the building of the track. The plan's first goal is to get money from the PFA for the project.
Michael could not say, when asked after the press conference, whether she has been able get money from the PFA or even whether the proposal for the track has been presented to the PFA.
Calls made to Mapp for clarification on Wednesday were not returned.
Michael did say Wednesday the PFA has authorized Caribbean Professional Consultants to develop a scope of work, as well as architectural and engineering plans for repairs to the school's gymnasium.
As for Kean's leaking roof and walls, Michael said Property and Procurement selected a contractor in July who has been able to fix the most critical areas.
Michael could not say when asked who the contractor is. She also said work on repairing the school's roof has been temporarily halted, because the "existing condition of the roof was found to be in far worse condition than originally assessed." However, Michael added work should resume on the project in the next two weeks, as soon as another report detailing the scope of work needed for the roof is completed.
Work is also being done to ensure the walkways will be finished by the end February, Michael said. Both the roof and walkway projects are funded through the Public Finance Authority.
A three-step action plan has also been created to address the mold problems at Woodson. At each step, Michael said, proposals will be solicited for:
— completion of a moisture mapping survey for the school to identify areas affected by mold saturation and moisture penetration.
— performance of remedial mitigation work, to remove floor and ceiling tilesalong with other itemsin order to contain mold spores.
— construction to stop leaking which plagues the school during heavy rains.
The contractor selected to complete the third step of the plan will also be responsible for the removal of the mold. Michael said all steps must be completed before students can resume classes at Woodson.
After the meeting, Michael said none of the requests for proposal have been issued , but said they will be released "shortly."
Since proposals have not been requested or received Michael couldn't say what the entire project would cost, but $1.5 million was specifically appropriated in the Omnibus Bill from the General Fund for repairs at Woodson.
Davis said was not happy that he hadn't been informed of the press conference, and therefore had not attended.
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