End of an Era: DOE Shutters Coral Bay’s Guy H. Benjamin School

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St. John left with one public elementary school

Parents of students and community members listen as V.I. Education Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, above, addresses parents and guardians of Guy H. Benjamin School children in Coral Bay on Monday, June 9, announcing that the historic community school would not reopen in the Fall. Frett-Gregory said the decision to close the school was based on “efficiency” and “effectiveness.”

CORAL BAY – Expecting the worst, many Guy Benjamin School teachers wore black on Monday, June 9, as they braced for meetings with the Department of Education about the future of the small and historic Coral Bay public school.

After months of speculation and wide-spread rumors, DOE officials met first with GBS faculty and staff at a closed to the media gathering at 3 p.m. on the school’s campus. The staff’s fears were realized at that meeting as DOE officials informed them that GBS would close following this school year. In the fall, all public elementary school students on St. John will attend Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay.

A total of 12 government officials, including DOE Commissioner Donna Frett-Gregory, DOE St. Thomas/St. John District Superintendent Jeanette Smith-Barry, Office of Management and Budget Director Debra Gottlieb and Julius E. Sprauve School Principal Dionne Wells, informed parents and community members of GBS’ closure at a 5:30 p.m. meeting on Monday in the school’s cafeteria.

With about 70 people packing the room, tempers rose and more than a few tears were shed as DOE officials told residents and parents that the long-running community school ­— named in honor of a local education icon who lived just up the street — would not open for the next school year. The difficult decision was made based on “efficiency” and DOE’s “effectiveness,” according to Frett-Gregory.

“We are here to discuss the future of Guy Benjamin School and how it will impact your children,” Frett-Gregory told the crowd. “Over the past four to five years enrollment has steadily declined.”

From a total enrollment of 112 students in school year 2010/11, the student body at GBS has steadily dropped with 87 registered students for 2013/2014, according to the DOE Commissioner.

Despite hosting early registration for GBS students this year, there were only 73 students signed up to attend the elementary school in the fall, Frett-Gregory explained.

“This reflected a further decline in enrollment,” she said. “Our focus is on efficiency and we continue to be plagued with a teacher shortage across the territory; St. John and Coral Bay are no exception. Many of you are aware of the continued financial hardships we are experiencing here and we must utilize our resources to the best of our ability.”

“We have been without a principal here for almost two years,”  Frett-Gregory said. “We are left with no other choice but to consolidate.”

DOE officials spent months trying to avoid this conversation, Frett-Gregory said.

“This decision was not a decision made lightly,” she said. “We explored all possible options to keep the doors open. That was not possible.”

“This is not a conversation that I’m happy to have,” said the DOE Commissioner. “This is one that I don’t have a choice but to have.”

While repeatedly declining to discuss DOE’s financial details — the commissioner refused to state a dollar amount being saved by the department with GBS’ closing —  Frett-Gregory insisted that the decision to close the school was based on a lack of human resources.

“With the financial challenges we are facing we have to make wiser decisions based on the resources; our financial resources and our human resources,” said Frett-Gregory. “I kept the conversation to efficiency and effectiveness, not cost savings. I don’t want to have that conversation.”

“We did all we could to ensure keeping the doors open,” she said. “The numbers did not give me the opportunity to tell you the doors will be open. Think about the human capital we have in the territory.”

“We are doing the best we can do with what we have available to us,” said the DOE Commissioner.
In the fall, all GBS students will be transferred to JESS in Cruz Bay, which is preparing for the additional enrollment by planning for two classes at each grade level, explained Smith-Barry.

“All students enrolled at GBS will be transferred over to JESS unless parents inform us otherwise,” said the DOE District Superintendent. “We are prepared to make that transition by moving them to the JESS campus. We expect two classes at each grade level next year at JESS.”

DOE plans to provide bus service to all students and is exploring the possibility of having a para-professional ride along as a chaperone, Smith-Barry explained.

Education officials need parental support in order to make the transition a smooth one, the district superintendent added.

“We all have the responsibility to work together now to make this transition as smooth as possible,” said Smith-Barry. “We ask for your support. We understand emotions are high, GBS has always been a special place.”

Despite Frett-Gregory’s insistence that department “efficiency” forced the school’s closure, many residents at last week’s meeting did not believe that to be the full story.

“What is the real reason for this,” asked Zenobia Lomax, a former GBS teacher. “The government doesn’t have the money to run this small school? It’s a shame that the little babies will have to go to JESS.”

“Cruz Bay is congested already,” Lomax said. “Why can’t some from JESS come up here? There is no playground at JESS for our children.”

It is the community’s responsibility to look out for the island’s children, Lomax added.

“We have to look out for our children,” she said. “Who is looking out for them? It’s a shame what is happening on St. John now.”

“We can’t close this school,” said Lomax. “This is a historical school. This school has always been known as the best little school on St. John.”

Many residents at the meeting believed that the land would eventually be used for a long-rumored marina.

“I heard the governor mention a marina here in Coral Bay in the future,” said Delroy “Ital” Anthony. “We need to hear him talking about our schools, not a marina. What are we doing; are we looking at a marina here?”

Richard Burks also questioned DOE officials about the planned marina rumors on the government-owned land.

“There are a lot of rumors that someone else wants this land,” said Burke. “Is there any truth that there is a third party who want this land?”

Frett-Gregory promised she had no idea about a marina or a third party interested in using the land, she told the crowd.

“No one has discussed with me any third party interested in this property,” said Frett-Gregory. “I do not know anything about that.”

While DOE officials are concerned about efficiency, they should be more worried about quality, explained GBS parent Colleen Brooker.

“Your concern is efficiency and our concern is quality,” said Brooker. “We felt very confident that our school, despite being dismantled by DOE, our school continued getting excellent test scores and, more important, our children were happy.”