St. John School Issue Takes Center Stage

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V.I. Governor John deJongh addresses the crowd at Cinnamon’s T’ree Restaurant

 

The lease of V.I. National Park land by the V.I. government for the construction of a new school on St. John was the hot topic at the Sunday, January 27, Friends of the VINP annual meeting, with the issue earning a mention in speeches by Friends President Joe Kessler, VINP Superintendent Mark Hardgrove and keynote speaker Governor John deJongh.

There were nearly 200 Friends of the Park members and St. John residents at the meeting at Cinnamon Bay’s T’Ree Lizard Restaurant, where Kessler reiterated the Friends’ support for a school on St. John through an equitable land swap, while deJongh focused on the importance of constructing a new school on land obtained through a lease with the VINP.

“We have supported the idea [of a new school] all along and agree that the site suggested by the Park Service in Estate Catherineberg is appropriate and well-suited for the school,” said Kessler. “We firmly believe that we can do what is best for the children of St. John and protect the park at the same time — these issues are not mutually exclusive. As such, we also believe that the most appropriate means for acquiring this land for a school is through an equitable land exchange, or swap.”

Balancing Park, Public Facilities
There is no question St. John needs a new school, explained deJongh, who has publicly discussed his support for H.R. 53, a bill introduced by Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to enter into a lease with the V.I. government on behalf of the VINP for the construction of a school. The bill has passed the House and is now under consideration in the U.S. Senate.

“It’s important that we have the park, and we also need to provide opportunities for the people who live here,” said deJongh. “There is no disagreement that we need a new school on St. John, although we may momentarily disagree on how to get there. We should not look at what keeps us apart, but build bridges together.”

Hardgrove’s speech and state of the park address vaguely touched on the school issue and the importance of balancing the park with public facilities.

“As the population continues to increase, we should consider the impacts of the individual improvements and provide the necessary support for important public facilities; improvement of existing roads, hurricane shelters, schools, sewage treatment systems, and lighting and other needs, while ensuring that we minimize impacts to the natural and cultural environment which makes our islands so special,” said Hardgrove.

 Despite the disagreement over how to best obtain park land for the construction of a new school, 2007 was a good year for both the VINP and the Friends, according to Kessler. The highlight of the year occurred in September, when the Trust for Public Land officially acquired majority interest in the 420-acre inholding Estate Maho Bay.

Fundraising Success
“This is a massive accomplishment and all those who love the V.I. National Park and in particular the Maho Bay area will be forever grateful to John Garrison and the Trust for Public Land, which orchestrated this preservation effort,” said Kessler. “We are also grateful to the family members who sold their shares for their commitment to preserving this magnificent place, and, of course, to the donors that made this financially possible. The Friends is proud to have played an important role in this process.”

Other Friends accomplishments in 2007 include raising $725,000 through dues and other fundraisers, the opening of the Friends store in Mongoose Junction, and the investment of more than $420,000 in programs and improvements including the Hurricane Hole mooring project, coral health research projects and the Folklife Festival.

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Friends of the VINP President Joesph Kessler

 

Kessler’s speech also highlighted the Friends children’s programs, including the Summer Trail Crews program, which teams up three V.I. high school kids with three kids from the mainland to work on trail improvements for a month in the VINP, and the School Grants Program, which provided funding for nine St. John classes to do various projects involving the park last year.

The Friends will seek to raise even more money than last year during 2008, explained Kessler.

VINP Faces Funding Shortfalls
“We will seek to raise more than $900,000 to support an ambitious program plan that, in addition to our traditional natural resource, cultural preservation and environmental education projects, will complete the final phase of the Hurricane Hole mooring project, upgrade portions of the trails at Francis Bay and Cinnamon Bay so that they are wheelchair accessible and transform the archaeology lab at Cinnamon Bay into a mini-museum,” he said.

The VINP itself accomplished several important achievements last year, including investing more than $7 million in the local economy through salaries, contracts, supplies, materials and utilities; cleaning up more than 1,800 bags of debris and 90 abandoned vessels from Hassel Island; and filling all ranger jobs, including hiring six law enforcement park rangers who patrol trails, marine areas and beaches.
One of the biggest challenges the VINP faces is a tight budget, explained Hardgrove.

“The VINP’s current operating budget is about $4.6 million; the operating budget for the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument is $360,000,” said the VINP superintendent. “With our funding shortfalls we are only able to fund 65 of the 76 authorized positions with our existing budget and as each of you know operational costs rise substantially each year on islands. In addition to staffing shortfalls, the park faces a maintenance backlog of $22 million at today’s costs.”

 

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VINP Superintendent Mark Hardgrove

 

Volunteer, Ranger Honored
Despite the park’s funding shortfalls, the VINP has several ambitious goals for the future, including releasing a new draft of the General Management Plan in late summer for public review and comments, and paving the North Shore Road in 2009 at an estimated cost of $2.9 million.

The Friends recognized those who helped them in their role supporting the park. Volunteer coordinator Jeff Chabot was honored as Volunteer of the Year, and VINP ranger Laurel Brannick was given the Friends Partnership Award at the meeting.