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Disagreement Over $1.7M Education Fund Transfer Rises in Senate: Francis Points to Red Tape, Frett-Gregory Calls for More Oversight

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Amid a tense discussion on Wednesday at the Senate Committee on Budget, Appropriations, and Finance, senators had a disagreement over a funding transfer request amounting to $1.7 million for the Department of Education. Senators Novelle Francis and Donna Frett-Gregory were distinctly divided over the department’s continual fund transfer requests, which were meant to address long-pending vendor debts.

Kimo Smith, the Deputy Commissioner of Education, clarified to Senator Francis that the proposed $1.7 million is slated to be used to settle outstanding payments to vendors. Some of these payments have been pending for almost ten years. In response to a query from Senator Samuel Carrion, Smith also mentioned the department’s plans to move towards a more regular 30-day payment schedule for future liabilities.

Yet, Committee Chair, Senator Donna Frett-Gregory raised questions about the recurring nature of the Department of Education’s fund requests. She highlighted past requests of approximately $3 million and questioned the department’s continual struggle to process payments on time. Smith noted that past requests often went unaddressed due to funding shortages, but he remained hopeful that clearing the existing debts would pave the way for smoother payment cycles in the future.

However, Smith’s answers did not placate Frett-Gregory. She emphasized the need for an external review and assigned the responsibility to the Office of Management and Budget Director, Jenifer O’Neal. She tasked O’Neal with collaborating with the Department of Property and Procurement to assess the legitimacy of vendor claims. Frett-Gregory stated, “We need to ensure that every claim is backed by verifiable proof of work completed.”

Senator Francis countered, suggesting that delays in the Department of Education’s payments are more often due to administrative issues than concerns about the legitimacy of the work done. He explained, “We frequently ask contractors to carry out urgent tasks. These contractors deliver, but often remain unpaid.” Smith echoed Francis’s sentiments, emphasizing that emergency situations in schools often require immediate responses, with vendors generally being trustworthy in such situations.

Wrapping up the discussion, Frett-Gregory highlighted that an external assessment would bring clarity to these differing perspectives. Smith assured the committee of the Department of Education’s transparency, emphasizing that they were ready to provide all necessary documentation since the obligations had undergone internal verification. Additionally, he reiterated the senator’s call for a detailed breakdown of the debts to be shared with lawmakers.

Smith further shared details of the pending payments. He mentioned unbudgeted charges for waste collection services, including additional fees charged by the service providers. He also informed the committee about a transaction for online education services from Houghton Mifflin. Initially, this was set to be covered by federal funds, but the department now bears the financial responsibility.

After a thorough discussion, the committee eventually greenlit the $1.7 million fund transfer for the Department of Education. However, the passionate debate underscored the deeper issues surrounding how financial responsibilities are managed within governmental departments.

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New Legislative Effort to Address Non-Consensual Sharing of Explicit Images in the Virgin Islands

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The Virgin Islands Senate recently took a significant step toward protecting individuals from the unauthorized dissemination of sexually explicit images, commonly referred to as “revenge porn.” Senator Donna Frett-Gregory spearheaded the initiative, presenting Bill 35-0182 to the Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety. This proposed legislation aims to amend Title 14, Chapter 51 of the Virgin Islands Code, introducing stringent measures against the non-consensual sharing of explicit images.

With the advent of digital technology, the phenomenon of revenge porn has emerged as a disturbing trend, victimizing individuals by exposing their privacy to public scrutiny without consent. The bill proposes to tackle this issue head-on by categorizing the first offense as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in prison, and elevating subsequent offenses to felony status. Victims would have two years to file a criminal complaint from the moment they become aware of the incident.

The Virgin Islands joins a concerted effort across 48 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico, where similar laws have been established to curb this invasive practice. The bill specifically targets the intentional distribution of non-consensual sexually explicit material aimed at harassment, intimidation, or causing harm to the victim, marking it as the territory’s 15th domestic violence crime.

Timothy Perry, representing the Department of Justice for St. Thomas, St. John, and Water Island, acknowledged the bill’s intent but suggested refinements to its language to eliminate potential legal defenses that could hinder prosecution. He highlighted the need for clarity on the intent to harass and knowledge of the necessity for consent.

The Virgin Islands Police Department (VIPD), through Assistant Commissioner Mario Brooks, expressed support for the bill, underscoring the traumatic impact of non-consensual pornography on victims. Brooks, however, raised concerns about the bill’s age limitations, pointing out the significant incidence of such crimes among minors, especially within educational settings.

The bill has ignited a broader discussion on the resources required for effective enforcement, with both the VIPD and the Department of Justice emphasizing the need for a comprehensive plan to accompany the new legislation. The Office of the Territorial Public Defender and the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix have also contributed to the dialogue, emphasizing the importance of addressing repeat offenders and the challenges faced by victims in reporting these crimes due to societal stigma.

The legislative committee’s overwhelming support for the bill, coupled with a call for public awareness campaigns by Senator Alma Francis-Heyliger, underscores the community’s commitment to combating this issue. Dr. Clema Lewis of the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix voiced her organization’s readiness to lead educational efforts, highlighting the critical role of awareness in prevention.

As the bill moves to the Committee on Rules and Judiciary, the Virgin Islands stands on the cusp of significant legal reform aimed at safeguarding personal dignity and privacy in the digital age, reflecting a collective resolve to address and prevent the harm caused by the non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit images.

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Governor Bryan’s Administration Advances School Upgrades Amid Budget Scrutiny

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In a proactive move towards improving educational infrastructure, the administration under Governor Bryan is making significant strides. Amid a focused dialogue with the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, concerns over financial stewardship within school renovation projects were brought to light by Senator Kenneth Gittens. The senator’s inquiry into fiscal responsibility and project efficiency underscored the administration’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

Senator Gittens, expressing his trust in the Department of Education’s leadership, voiced his apprehensions regarding contractor performance, sparked by student advocacy for better school conditions. His concerns led to a deeper examination of the projects managed by Custom Builders VI, particularly focusing on the air conditioning installation at St. Croix Educational Complex High School and the rehabilitation efforts at Gladys A Abraham Elementary School on St. Thomas.

Dionne Wells-Hedrington, the Education Commissioner, alongside Acting Chief Operations Officer Alan Fleming, provided insights into the project statuses. Fleming assured the committee of the near completion of the St. Croix project, highlighting the meticulous approach to ensuring quality and durability in educational facilities.

Addressing the queries raised by Senator Gittens regarding the costs associated with specific repairs, Fleming elaborated on the complexities and standards involved in commercial-grade installations, differentiating them from residential counterparts. This distinction underscores the administration’s focus on investing in lasting infrastructure that meets the specific needs of educational environments.

The Department of Property and Procurement has disclosed that Custom Builders’ contract for the Gladys Abraham Elementary School renovation is valued at approximately $4.87 million, demonstrating a substantial investment in the territory’s educational future. The air conditioning project at the Complex, with its near $825,000 budget, is pivotal for creating a conducive learning environment.

Despite Senator Gittens’ reservations about certain project costs and timelines, the administration’s dialogue with contractors and ongoing assessments ensure that the projects not only meet but exceed expectations. The acknowledgment of vendor responsiveness challenges by Mrs. Wells-Hedrington is a testament to the administration’s proactive stance on improving project delivery and efficiency.

As the St. Croix Educational Complex awaits the final piece for its air conditioning upgrade, the administration’s revised timeline reflects a commitment to thoroughness and quality. Governor Bryan’s focus on enhancing the educational landscape through such projects is a clear indication of his dedication to the well-being and success of the USVI’s students.

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Navigating Development in USVI Historic Districts: A Balanced Approach

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In the heart of discussions aimed at refining regulations for property development within the USVI’s historic downtown areas, a broader understanding emerged concerning the balance between preservation and progress. During a recent Senate Committee on Disaster Recovery, Infrastructure, and Planning session, key insights were shared on the nature of renovations in these cherished districts.

Acting Deputy Director Sean Krigger of the USVI State Historic Preservation Office, addressing inquiries from Senator Milton Potter, clarified the misconception around the complexity of undertaking development projects in the historic districts. Krigger emphasized that the regulatory framework for renovations in these areas closely mirrors the standards applied across St. Thomas, St. John, or St. Croix, aiming to dispel concerns over excessive bureaucracy or prohibitive costs.

The conversation, sparked by Senator Potter’s questions on what stifles interest in developing the historic districts, veered into a debate on whether financial burdens or bureaucratic hurdles were the primary deterrents. While Krigger and Jean Pierre Oriol, Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, pointed to escalating construction costs as a significant barrier, Senator Kenneth Gittens suggested that the stringency of Historic Preservation Commission’s (HPC) requirements might be the root cause. Gittens advocated for legislation to moderate certain restrictions, aiming to facilitate easier development processes.

Contrary to the perception of inflexibility, Krigger illustrated the HPC’s adaptability, highlighting innovations in construction that have eased the renovation process. Notably, the commission has approved the use of locally manufactured, cement-based bricks that mimic traditional Danish bricks in appearance but offer practical advantages. This approach exemplifies the HPC’s willingness to embrace modern solutions that respect historical aesthetics without compromising on quality or safety.

Krigger further showcased advancements such as cement boards designed to replicate the look of traditional wood siding, once the preferred material of the HPC. These fireproof boards exemplify the office’s effort to integrate safety with historical fidelity. Additionally, Krigger pointed out that many materials historically used in the districts remain readily accessible, indicating that the HPC’s guidelines are not as prohibitive as commonly believed.

The HPC’s guidelines, covering a spectrum from paint colors to architectural additions, are crafted to offer clarity and flexibility to property owners seeking to navigate the preservation requirements. This was underscored by St. Thomas HPC member Enrique Rodriguez, who noted the commission’s high approval rate for applications, challenging the narrative of an overly rigid HPC.

This discussion reflects a concerted effort to balance historic preservation with the realities of modern development, highlighting the USVI’s commitment to maintaining its cultural heritage while fostering economic growth and innovation in its historic districts.

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