Parents were not informed in advance that St. Croix school buses wouldn’t run April 30 because the bus company did not notify Education of the stoppage until that morning, Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry told a Senate panel Monday.
"Frankly, we believed that because we were processing payments, they would continue service," Terry said when questioned about the lack of notice by Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly at a hearing of the Education, Youth and Culture Committee on St. Thomas. O’Reilly pressed Terry on the point, asking if Terry was saying the cutoff of service came as a surprise.
While the company demanded payment in an April 16 letter, there was no subsequent announcement that service was going to stop on a particular date, Terry said. "Unfortunately, we believed the company would wait while we moved money and processed payments, and it just didn’t happen that way," Terry said.
The department gave Senate President Ronald Russell draft legislation that morning for a $2.4 million appropriation transfer request, moving money from personnel costs, materials and supplies, and allocating $1.4 million for bus transportation, which, along with reprogramming $2 million currently allocated to setting up a longitudinal data system, will pay bus service through the rest of the fiscal year, she said.
But the schools will still be struggling to make ends meet, and $3.5 million in projected utility bills remain unfunded, she said. The hardship is compounded by the department’s proposed 2013 budget, which is $9.2 million less than the 2012 level, Terry said.
Since 85 percent of the budget is salaries and benefits, "there must be additional dismissals in order to stay within the budget," she said.
It is possible the schools will have to reduce the amount allotted for supplies as they did this year; athletic programs, maintenance and janitorial services may all be affected. "Even though each district is modifying bus routes in an effort to reduce the cost, bus transportation is likely to continue to be a challenge," she said.
Sen. Janette Millin-Young, chair of the committee, asked Terry about the status of JROTC instructors’ pay and whether they must be exempt from recent 8 percent government employee salary reductions. In April, the Rules and Judiciary Committee held a bill from Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen to exempt the instructors, pending clarification from the federal government as to whether locally hired and paid JROTC instructors’ salaries can be cut and how the minimum allowable salary is computed. Since then, James E. Knauff Jr., JROTC chief based at the U.S. Army Cadet Command in Savannah, Ga., wrote a letter to Hansen and subsequently told the Source directly that unless the territory rescinds the reductions it will lose the Junior ROTC programs at St. Croix Educational Complex, St. Croix Central High School, and Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas.
Hansen has asked Russell to convene a special session of the Legislature to address the question, according to a statement from her office Monday.
Terry said the department is committed to maintaining the JROTC program. She and Assistant Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory said they recently participated in a conference call with Army representatives, who were concerned that the cut would affect the instructors’ federally mandated rate of pay. But Terry said she not been sent any correspondence from the military about the matter.
If the 8 percent is restored, it will cost Education about $77,000, which will require the reduction of one to two employees, Terry said.
No votes were taken during the oversight hearing. Present were: Millin-Young, Sens. Craig Barshinger and Carlton "Ital" Dowe, along with O’Reilly, who is not a member of the committee. Absent were Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Louis Patrick Hill, Neville James and Sammuel Sanes.