A school for St John: Proposal for new campus on US Virgin Islands hits snag | Courthouse News Service
Thursday, November 30, 2023
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A school for St John: Proposal for new campus on US Virgin Islands hits snag

The territory wants to use a land deal with the National Parks Service to build the first public high school on St. John island, but questions from local lawmakers threaten to delay the project and drive up costs.

(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.


Building a new school in a “more remote area” in St. John would be “more conducive to learning,” Wells-Hedrington said. The proposed facility would replace the existing Julius E. Sprauve School and sit on land in the center of the island. Officials estimate design and construction would take around four years.

Plans to build a new school started heating up around a decade ago, when the National Parks Service surveyed potential sites for a new school and landed on a 55-acre farm the federal government purchased in 1968. Negotiations fell dormant but were restarted in 2019 when Governor Albert Bryan Jr. made the feds an offer.

Bryan proposed that the federal government give over some parkland in exchange for the uninhabited territory-owned island of Whistling Cay, which is within the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park. The Trump administration signed a nonbinding agreement to pursue the proposal in 2020. 

Although the design has not been finalized, preliminary plans call for the campus to have separate clusters of buildings for elementary, junior high and high school students. The facility would also include public athletic facilities, a meeting space and a hurricane shelter. 

“This is more than just a school,” Wells-Hedrington said. “This is the wellbeing of the community as a whole.”

The school would accommodate 260 students from kindergarten to eighth grade, as well as 200 high schoolers. After “half a century of setbacks and obstacles,” it would “finally enable St. Johnians to graduate from high school on their home island,” Bryan stated in a news release.

“This historic achievement is the result of the culmination of decades of work, spanning numerous administrations and requiring leadership from public servants across the nation,” Bryan stated. “The gravity of the calling we share in protecting and providing for future generations has never been more apparent. Our opportunity to safeguard the future of education for our children is upon us.”

Still, the plan has its own challenges — and as it stands now, not everyone is sold.

One major challenge is the cost of building materials. Because the island doesn’t have many natural resources, materials must be transported first to St. Thomas, then to St. John, then finally up a mountain to a worksite in the center of the island. Costs will be locked in once the government signs an agreement with FEMA.

Lawmakers are also having their doubts. A measure was introduced in the territorial legislature in June to approve the land transfer, but lawmakers on July 20 voted to postpone action on the proposal for 45 days. Some legislators felt the proposal was presented without sufficient time for them to review it. They raised concerns about water rights at Whistling Cay for fishers and recreational boaters and pointed out that the measure does not actually guarantee a school would be built.

“I would not be able to sleep at night unless I knew due diligence was done,” territorial Senator Donna Frett-Gregory said, according to The St. Thomas Source

Meanwhile, Senator Kenneth Gittens wanted stronger guarantees a school will be constructed after the territory takes over the land.

“Tell me or show me any place in the bill before you that says upon this land swap that our school will be built,” he said to fellow lawmakers during debates on the measure. “Where is that in the enacting clause?"

Even still, proponents say it’s no time for delay. In a press release before the legislature’s vote, Stacey Plaskett, the island’s nonvoting representative in Congress, urged swift action on the proposal.

“The Virgin Islands is quickly approaching its deadline for using federal funding to rebuild schools,” she said. “As we all know, NPS processes take time, and that is a luxury which we – and the children of the Virgin Islands – cannot afford.”

Wells-Hedrington has the same concerns. After all, as she knows from her own school days, many students’ commutes don’t start or end with the 15-minute ferry ride.

Because she grew up on the east end of the island on the opposite side from the ferry, Wells-Hedrington had to wake up before dawn. She faced a 30-minute odyssey through winding and rough mountain roads to reach Cruz Bay for the ferry. But even once she and other students got to St. Thomas, they still had to walk another half-mile to reach Ivanna Eudora Kean High.

Wells-Hedrington is ready to ease that burden for future generations. She believes that after decades of frustration, “it’s time to put the children [and] the community first.”

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Categories / Education, Government, Politics

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