(CN) — Dionne Wells-Hedrington is all too familiar with the daily pilgrimage some of her students must take to school.
A native of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Wells-Hedrington now leads the territory’s Department of Education. She was also once a student herself — and like every high schooler on St. John island, she had to wake up before dawn each morning just to catch a ferry ride to Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on the main island of St. Thomas.
After decades of hoping and planning, “the stars are finally aligned” for St. John to get a high school of its own, Wells-Hedrington said in an interview. But now a plan to construct a new K-12 campus for the island’s roughly 4,000 residents has hit a snag in the territorial legislature, potentially jeopardizing one of the last steps in the half-century quest.
“Our children should not have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to get ready for school,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
Local legislators are considering a plan to trade ownership of an 18-acre island held by the territorial government with an 11-acre parcel controlled by the National Parks Service. Because around 60% of St. John is National Parks land, the deal could give officials the space to build a school and help them avoid the headaches associated with developing federal land.
Once approved, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would construct a new K-12 school on St. John using funds allocated for the territory’s recovery from hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The deal would require the island’s government to cover 10% of the cost, while the Parks Service would pay the territory $210,000 to offset differences in land value between the properties.
Now, though, the territorial legislature has voted to table the proposal for further study until at least September, local media reported, citing concerns about water rights and a desire to conduct their own due diligence. That’s on top of the sometimes fraught history between the National Parks Service and surrounding communities — a tension also present on St. John.
Supporters fear the delay will drive up the cost of the project, which is already expected to exceed $100 million, and could lead to downsizing — resulting in less facilities or amenities for the students of St. John.
“The longer we wait to start spending the money, the less we can purchase,” Chaneel Callwood, the lead architect for the project, told Courthouse News.
Purchased from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million, the U.S. Virgin Islands are one of the five inhabited territories controlled by the United States. The Caribbean territory consists of roughly 50 mostly uninhabited islands, including the three main land masses of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix.
St. Thomas, home to the territory’s capital, is the most populous island in the U.S. Virgin Islands with around 42,000 residents. Around 40 miles south is St. Croix, the largest landmass with a population of about 41,000.
Then there’s St. John, three miles to the east of St. Thomas with fewer than 4,000 residents and zero public high schools. About 213 students on St. John must take a ferry to and from St. Thomas every day for school. It’s students in this boat that Virgin Islands officials say will benefit from a new school campus on the island.
Currently, St. John has just one public school: Julius E. Sprauve School, which is in downtown Cruz Bay on the western end of the island. But the school only serves students through eighth grade, and there just isn’t physically enough room for growth, said Wells-Hedrington, the education official.