The responsibility of school infrastructure maintenance, a long-debated issue in the US Virgin Islands, is shifting from the Department of Education (D.O.E.) to a new Bureau of School Construction and Maintenance. This change is aimed at enabling the D.O.E. to concentrate more on curriculum and academics.
In a unanimous decision, all seven senators on the Budget, Appropriations and Finance Committee, chaired by Senator Donna Frett-Gregory, voted to transfer the duties of school repairs and maintenance to the newly established Bureau. The new organization will be directed by an executive director appointed by the governor, who will oversee acquiring property for school construction, building new schools, and managing maintenance and repairs.
With many schools in the territory in need of repair and new construction projects underway, Education Commissioner Dionne Wells-Hedrington supported the measure in principle, but emphasized the importance of the Bureau working closely with the D.O.E. to make joint decisions.
Mrs. Wells-Hedrington called for a clear delineation of the Bureau’s roles and responsibilities to avoid any ambiguity. She emphasized the need for a collaborative and cohesive relationship since both entities will still be accountable to those they serve.
The Bureau will be responsible for creating a 20-year master plan for school construction, maintenance, and capital investments. This plan will replace the Education Maintenance Fund, attracting an annual appropriation of $2.5 million. However, this figure is significantly lower than the $15 million Chaneil Callwood-Daniels, D.O.E.’s architect, claims is necessary for school maintenance. Mrs. Wells-Hedrington noted that the department’s maintenance budget has been severely underfunded for the past seven to ten years, receiving only $2 million annually.
Bill sponsor Frett-Gregory hopes that the measure will improve the maintenance of school buildings and address learning loss issues. The bill, numbered 35-0050, aims to hold elected leaders in the territory accountable for the future appearance of school buildings.
A review panel, consisting of the St. Croix Insular Superintendent, the St. Thomas/St. John Insular Superintendent, and members of the Virgin Islands Board of Education, will be formed to develop and manage the plan.