Department of Education officials unveiled changes to the administration of many schools in both the St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix Districts last week.
Both public schools on St. John will be run by new principals next year. After five years at the Julius E. Sprauve School, Principal Mario Francis is being transferred to Edith Williams Alternative Academy on St. Thomas next year.
Guy Benjamin School principal Dionne Wells will be replacing Francis as principal of JESS. Whitmore Browne, the principal of Evelyn Marcelli Elementary School on St. Thomas — which is closing at the end of the school year — will be new the GBS principal next year.
While rumors of transfers have been whispered for weeks, the official announcements about the new assignments came during a DOE press conference at the Curriculum Center on Thursday afternoon, May 26.
Officials cited budget cuts and strict No Child Left Behind benchmarks for some of the transfers. DOE has cut millions from its budget and is still looking for an additional $2.9 million in savings by the end of the fiscal year, Commissioner LaVerne Terry explained in last week’s press conference.
“The general fund has continued to decline and recently the department was required to reduce its budget by three percent to $6.8 million,” said Terry. “We anticipate additional budget cuts for the upcoming years. It should be noted personnel cost makes up approximately 90 percent of the department’s budget.”
There are also several schools in both districts which have never met Annual Year Progress, requirements which will only get more difficult for schools to meet in the future, Terry explained.
“Since 2007, we have had three elementary schools which have never made AYP and six secondary schools which have never made AYP,” said the DOE Commissioner. “This year, schools must reach higher standards to meet AYP. Instead of 37.7 percent of students reading at grade level to reach AYP in the third grade, starting next year it will 53.3 to meet AYP.”
“This new higher standard will put additional stress on all schools and especially on the schools which have never made AYP or barely made AYP,” said Terry.
DOE officials also outlined the department’s two year initiative to improve the entire school system.
“Two years ago we undertook an initiative to not just improve schools, but to improve the entire system,” said Terry. “In order to get rapid and sustained improvement we must look at the system as a whole. Instead of looking at each school staff in isolation, we looked at the staff as a whole to see how best to utilize our resources.”
The administration transfers were made in the best interest of each school and were not politically motivated, Terry added.
“The administrative changes were made to address concerns and create better alignment amongst schools,” she said. “Reviewing of schools’ performance data, district performances data and information from administrators were used to get a sense of where administrators might best fill the needs. Some will say these moves are politically and personally motivated and I say ‘You are wrong.’”
“This is not the first time administrators have been transferred,” Terry said. “It’s very common and this year should be considered no different than any other year. The Virgin Islands is a political place and as we all know it’s hard to separate any major decision from politics.”
“As much as we say it was not politically motivated, there will be those in the community who will not believe us,” Terry said.
In announcing the closure of Marcelli on St. Thomas, Terry said the department looked at schools with less than 200 students.
“We were faced with the reality that we needed to address the fact that we have some very small schools using an abundance of resources,” said the DOE Commissioner. “Likewise, we knew that some of these schools required major repairs for which there are no resources to address. We reviewed each of these schools and made the decision to close the Marcelli School.”
GBS in Coral Bay is one of those schools in the district with less than 200 students. Terry did not discuss closing the elementary school, but did leave the door open for future “difficult decisions.”
“It’s not sound to operate small schools when other schools can take those students,” Terry said. “There may be many other tough decisions in the future. The community wants and has demanded that we improve the school system and better prepare our students for their futures.”
“Our fiscal resources are scarce,” said Terry. “Changes are necessary, painful, but necessary. No matter what we do, the best interest of the student is placed ahead of all other considerations.”