Education Department's future grim under reduced budget

Testimony from the Education Department at Friday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing painted a bleak picture of the future of the territory’s schools under a severely reduced budget.

Education Commissioner Sharon McCollum said the department is cognizant of the government’s financial challenges, and “difficult choices” will have to be made.

The department’s proposed 2018 fiscal year General Fund budget is approximately $156.76 million, a reduction of $10.3 million from the current budget of $167 million.

The proposed spending plan includes $93 million for personnel services, nearly $40 million for fringe benefits, almost $4 million for materials and supplies, $11.5 million for mandatory costs, and $8.3 million for utilities.

Sen. Neville James asked department employees to account for the “significant reduction” in the proposed budget.

Muriel Fenton, director of Financial Reporting and Program Quality Assurance for the department, said the budget sent to the Legislature is less than what the department had initially requested, but did not say how much Gov. Kenneth Mapp had cut through the Office of Management and Budget.

“This was not the original budget recommendation, but it was the budget that was recommended by OMB, let’s put it that way, and signed by the governor,” Fenton said.

“That’s a good answer. So, what you’re saying, indirectly, is what all of you asked for, excuse me, what the department asked for, was not what was sent to the Legislature,” James said.

“I don’t want you to get in no trouble” with Mapp for speaking truthfully about the situation, James said, and acknowledged that the department has been put in an impossible position.

“We’re aware of this, these are significant, and there needs to be explanation,” James said.

McCollum said the department will work with whatever money it receives.

“We are committed to managing the budget that we have been given, and you have very adequately stated that what we submitted is different than what we have here in front of us, but we the Department of Education understand the fiscal challenges that the territory is facing,” McCollum said. “This is the budget that we have been given, and as difficult as it is going to be, we are going to do our best to work in the parameters of the $156 million.”

In response to questioning from Sen. Marvin Blyden about what effect the budget reduction might have for health and safety issues in territory schools, Education Chief of Staff Anthony Thomas was frank, and said given the age of school buildings, “we may need to seek funding” for additional maintenance to correct safety issues.

Sen. Novelle Francis asked about the status of two schools on St. Croix, Elena Christian Junior High School and Evelyn M. Williams Elementary School, which have been closed since the 2015-16 school year. Students were sent to other schools because the two facilities were in such dire need of repairs.

McCollum said it would take between $20 million and $25 million to repair those buildings and “we do not have that money.”

Sen. Janelle Sarauw said the department needs to hire more qualified people, but testifiers said the department can’t afford to pay competitive salaries and the chronic shortage of qualified teachers and personnel will only worsen under the reduced budget.

“We have challenges attracting the right persons for these positions. You have to almost have a doctorate in mathematics to actually manage the school lunch program, it is that challenging, that cumbersome, and that complex,” said Thomas. “We just can’t attract the right people unless we increase the costs on the budget for personnel.”

Sarauw also said she’s heard that the department is cancelling its Read 180 program, which department members couldn’t confirm Friday, and senators expressed concerns that effective programs will die due to the chronic lack of funding.

Finance Committee Chairman and former educator Sen. Kurt Vialet repeatedly encouraged the department to implement a program for academically advanced students, and objected to implementation of departmentalization in elementary schools, saying young students shouldn’t be moving between classrooms for different subjects.

Vialet spent a portion of the hearing opining on how the department should be run, including elimination of department-wide policies in favor of letting individual principals dictate which programs should be allowed in their schools.

“If they want to have departmentalization within their school, that’s up to them. If they want to have an all-boy class, that’s up to them,” Vialet said.

An obviously frustrated McCollum attempted to steer the conversation back to the issue at hand.

“Are we in a budget hearing?” McCollum asked.

“Yeah, we are, but I going to say it because we’re wasting resources,” Vialet said.

McCollum said that “not every school has the principal who has the wherewithal, the strength, or even the pedagogical content to make all the things that you’re saying possible. We know that not every principal is equal.”

Vialet cited $700,000 in federal funding to “bring them up to speed” and questioned why principals aren’t better equipped to do their jobs.

McCollum said senators need to give her the flexibility to run the department more effectively and bring in personnel from outside the territory.

“We need to make sweeping changes. And some changes that are going to be unpopular, that may put me and you out of a job. But the changes need to be made, and people are afraid to take those tough positions and have those conversations. But we don’t have everything within, we’re going to have to bring some things from outside, and that being new blood,” McCollum said.

“As long as it ain’t bad blood from outside,” Vialet said.

“If it is, we put them out, we send them back. The same way that if I make a mistake in hiring someone and they don’t produce, they go back, they’re back in the classroom, they’re back wherever. But we have to make changes and we have to think outside of the box, and as leaders we have to be willing to put our head on the guillotine,” McCollum said.

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