Aging schools throughout the territory will soon be getting their "ABCs" as part of a Department of the Interior initiative aimed at helping the territory improve the state of educational facilities.
At a press conference Thursday at Government House on St. Thomas, Gov. John deJongh Jr. announced the rollout of the Interior Department’s Assessment of Buildings and Classrooms (ABC) program, the second phase of a wider schools improvement initiative that covers all U.S insular territories.
The intent of ABC is to develop a thorough baseline inventory and assessment of all elementary, middle and high school buildings, which will ultimately help the territory determine what kinds of repairs and construction need to be done and how many federal dollars will be allocated for such improvements.
There are a total of 1,561 public buildings on 125 campuses in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, which serve a total population of 70,750 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The U.S. Virgin Islands has 34 public schools, many of which are in marginal condition.
"The ABC initiative addresses the quality of educational facilities for our children," said deJongh. "Phase two will address exactly which type of investments we have to make, and give us a document that will address over a long period what we need to do both with respect to deferred maintenance, but also with respect to reconstruction of existing facilities."
Assistant Interior Secretary for Insular Areas Anthony Babauta, who also spoke at the press conference, said that the assessment of school buildings will take into account all current facilities and factor in both their educational and historical value.
Physical inspections will commence sometime this summer and will take two or three months. Staff from the Office of Insular Affairs, the V.I. Department of Education, the Department of Public Works and the Army Corps of Engineers will all collaborate on the project.
The results of the assessment will take a further 10 to 12 months and will provide island decision-makers with insights concerning the overall physical condition of all public school facilities, an accounting of deferred maintenance and replacement values, and identify trends in maintenance practices and requirements in order to pinpoint opportunities for efficiencies.
"I believe that conducting the assessments will result in valuable information for both leadership decision making, and for working-level maintenance, planning and execution," Babauta said. "We are not commencing this to be critical of current management, but to empower the community with information on which future decisions can be based."
"The ultimate goal is to create functioning and safe schools and to create the best possible learning environment for children," he continued. "We hope that the information will result in lengthening building lifecycles by assisting maintenance and planning, and getting the most bang for our buck."
Babauta said he did not have a final number yet regarding how much federal money would eventually be allotted to school improvement, but he emphasized that funds would not come from V.I. coffers.
ABC is part of the Interior Department’s overall 2011-2016 strategic plan, which reflects a broad commitment to improving the quality of life in the U.S. territories, particularly in the areas of health and education.
“Ultimately, every island community has as its core concerns, the future and opportunities we provide to our children," said Babauta. "Though we will continue to struggle with the challenges to fund new school construction, we can still make wise decisions with current resources. Insular ABCs can be the blueprint for future improvements and current maintenance to every island school system.”