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Unspent Federal Grants Stall Progress in Early Childhood Development in St. Croix



In the wake of ongoing protests by educators over work conditions in St. Croix’s public schools, the Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development gathered last Thursday to tackle broader challenges in child care across the territory. The meeting, chaired by Senator Marise James, aimed to address not only the protests but also the hurdles faced by organizations such as Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands (LSS) and the V.I. Department of Human Services (DHS) in enhancing child care services. This discussion comes at a time when $16 million in federal funds remains untouched.

While Senator James refrained from delving into specifics, she acknowledged that both the Education Commissioner and the District Education Superintendent had addressed the concerns raised by the St. Croix AFT, a teachers’ union.

The primary focus of the hearing was early childhood development. Representatives from LSS, DHS, and other agencies outlined their initiatives and obstacles in fostering the social, cognitive, and academic growth of the territory’s youngest residents. LSS, which provides “Early Head Start” programs for children up to three years old, faces financial constraints that make it difficult to meet federal matching requirements for grants. Junia John-Straker, CEO of LSS, highlighted the organization’s struggle to offer competitive salaries, making it challenging to attract and retain staff.

Similarly, DHS Assistant Commissioner Carla Benjamin revealed that her department, responsible for administering the Head Start program, faces comparable issues. Despite these challenges, both organizations are committed to serving the territory’s children. LSS currently accommodates 120 families, while the Head Start program has nearly 800 students enrolled. However, resource limitations hinder the expansion of these services.

The scarcity of resources has also impeded the program’s expansion from St. Croix to St. Thomas. Renting suitable space on St. Thomas has proven to be cost-prohibitive, according to Ms. John-Straker. Senator Carla Joseph suggested exploring partnerships with other organizations willing to share space.

In a positive development, Carla Benjamin disclosed that a new facility for St. Johnian Head Start students is under construction, replacing the one destroyed by hurricanes in 2017. Additionally, policy changes now make essential workers “categorically eligible” for childcare subsidies, irrespective of their income levels. Senator Joseph praised this as a significant achievement, emphasizing the importance of safe childcare for essential workers.

The hearing also touched upon the slow disbursement of federal grants aimed at upgrading private childcare services. Of the $23 million allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act for local childcare providers, only $7 million has been utilized. Senator Marise James urged childcare providers to apply for the remaining $16 million in grants to improve their facilities.

Senator Donna Frett-Gregory expressed concern over the lack of comprehensive data collection for young residents, hindering policy formulation. Dr. Charmaine Myers, Maternal Child Health director at the V.I. Department of Health, noted that a screening program for children up to eight years old has been operational since 2021, with plans to extend it to those up to 21 years old.

The session concluded with expressions of gratitude from testifiers and a commitment from lawmakers to support the enhancement and expansion of early childhood programs in the territory.

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USVI Senate Rejects Bill for Electing Attorney General Amid Concerns Over Political Influence



A recent legislative effort to transition the appointment of the U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General to an elected position was halted in the Senate on Tuesday. Spearheaded by Senator Alma Francis Heyliger, the proposed Bill 35-0248 sought to prompt the U.S. Congress to amend the Revised Organic Act, allowing the Attorney General to be elected directly by the populace.

This initiative rekindled a debate that began with a 1998 opinion poll indicating strong voter support for electing the Attorney General. The push for this change gains context from the recent terminations of former Attorneys General Denise George and Ariel Smith, followed by the appointment of Gordon Rhea by Governor Albert Bryan, with Ian Clement currently serving as acting Attorney General.

During a Committee on Homeland Security, Justice, and Public Safety session, Acting Attorney General Ian Clement outlined potential benefits and risks of the proposed electoral process. He highlighted the conflict of interest that could emerge if candidates for the territory’s chief legal position were to engage in fundraising activities.

Contrarily, Julie Smith-Todman, Chief Territorial Public Defender, maintained a neutral stance but expressed concerns about the possible undue influence of campaign contributions on candidates. She feared such influences might compel candidates to adopt excessively stringent measures to gain public approval.

Local attorney Russell Pate, a supporter of the bill, argued that the Attorney General should represent the people rather than the executive branch, adding to the voices calling for legislative enhancements to improve the bill.

The bill faced opposition from several senators, including Kenneth Gittens who expressed concerns about the potential for further politicization of the office and the loss of legislative oversight over the Department of Justice. Senator Franklin Johnson also voiced hesitations about the influence of political donors on an elected Attorney General.

While Senator Ray Fonseca initially leaned towards supporting the bill, he eventually abstained from the vote, influenced by his peers’ reservations.

Senator Francis Heyliger defended the bill passionately, countering arguments against politicization by stating the inherent political nature of the office and questioning the dismissal of the electorate’s ability to choose their representatives effectively.

Ultimately, the proposal was defeated, with only Senators Francis Heyliger and Dwayne DeGraff voting in favor. This decision comes over two decades after a significant portion of USVI voters expressed their desire to elect their Attorney General, leaving the issue unresolved.

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Senate Supports Revised “Serenity’s Nest” Project Following Amended Proposal



The vision of Positive T.A. Nelson, known as the “Cannabis Czar,” to create a social hub at his St. Croix residence has gained new momentum with significant backing from legislators. Nelson’s revised proposal for land use, aiming to build a space for outdoor events and various activities in Estate Morning Star, has successfully garnered legislative favor.

Initially endorsed during a December Committee of the Whole Meeting, Nelson’s plan promised to mitigate potential noise disruptions with strategic tree planting and a commitment to conclude all activities by 2 a.m. This plan was bolstered by Nelson’s assertion of having alleviated the concerns of a previously dissenting neighbor through dialogue, suggesting a consensus had been reached.

However, subsequent revelations highlighted the continued resistance from several neighbors, concerned about preserving the tranquil nature of their surroundings. This led to a withdrawal of support from senators, including Alma Francis Heyliger, who emphasized fairness and the importance of maintaining residential peace, alongside Senators Franklin Johnson and Donna Frett-Gregory.

A shift occurred three months later when an amendment to the proposal, which removed the amphitheater component and adjusted the event curfew to 1 a.m., convinced 10 out of 11 attending lawmakers to approve the project. Senator Carla Joseph chose not to vote.

The adjustment to the bill came after Senator Angel Bolques Jr., following advice from peers, took the initiative to revisit and amend the proposal. Senator Novelle Francis, presiding as chair of the Committee of the Whole, was instrumental in addressing the concerns of the neighbors.

During a legislative session on Monday, Senator Johnson expressed satisfaction over the resolution between Nelson and the opposing neighbors, highlighting the legislative visit to the site to understand the nuances of the conflict better. Senator Javan James Sr. conveyed to Nelson the assembly’s intention to balance the project’s benefits with the well-being of local residents.

Senator Bolques praised the revised bill as a foundational step towards establishing “Serenity’s Nest” as a vibrant locale for cultural celebration, community vitality, and unity, reflecting a significant turn in the project’s journey towards realization.

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The Committee of Rules and Judiciary Endorses Governor Bryan’s Three Nominees



The Committee of Rules and Judiciary recently expressed unanimous support for three distinguished nominees proposed by Governor Albert Bryan Jr., underscoring a promising direction for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Harold Willocks is set to grace the Supreme Court as its newest justice, Averil George is nominated to lead the Department of Human Services as its commissioner, and Antonio Stevens is poised to direct the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

Judge Harold Willocks shared insights into his extensive service history during the committee meeting, reflecting on his roles ranging from the Chief Public Defender appointed in 1992 to a seasoned judge at the V.I. Superior Court, where he served three terms before his current nomination. When queried by Senator Marise James about his desire to ascend to the Supreme Court, Willocks emphasized his commitment to serving the community more effectively from the bench, showcasing his humility and dedication to justice.

Averil George, nominated for the Department of Human Services, outlined her vision for the agency, emphasizing her resolve to enhance operational efficiency and staff welfare. Her tenure thus far has been marked by significant initiatives, including the upgrade of facilities and the digitalization of the department’s fiscal operations, aimed at ensuring the well-being of the territory’s most vulnerable citizens. George’s nomination was met with strong support from the senators, recognizing the magnitude of her responsibility and her commitment to the task.

Antonio Stevens, stepping up as the director of the V.I. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, detailed his strategic plans to address the critical shortage of paramedics and firefighters through ambitious hiring goals and salary adjustments. His proactive approach to improving service delivery and morale within the department resonated with the committee, highlighting a forward-thinking leadership style that promises to strengthen the territory’s emergency response capabilities.

The committee also navigated through a diverse legislative agenda, advancing several bills aimed at enhancing social welfare, honoring notable citizens, and supporting public service. Among these were initiatives to assist the formerly incarcerated in finding employment, to establish a health registry for chronic diseases, and to increase support for government employees.

These developments reflect the U.S. Virgin Islands’ commitment to governance, public service, and community welfare, guided by the astute leadership of Governor Bryan and the dedicated public servants stepping into their new roles.

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