(CN) — The U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature on Friday approved a proposed land swap between the territorial government and the National Parks Service to bring the first public high school to the island of St. John.
After several hours of debate, the Legislature voted 9-5 to approve the proposal to trade ownership of an 18-acre island held by the territorial government with an 11-acre parcel controlled by the National Parks Service. The plan includes a $210,000 payment from the agency to cover the difference in land value of the properties.
Legislators first discussed the proposal in July, but tabled it for 45 days to give officials more time to review it.
The crux of debate was the long, complicated and fraught history between islanders and the National Parks Service. Several senators felt the federal government has taken enough from the territory and the parks service should give up the land without receiving anything in return.
“If this government — whether the U.S. government, local government, whatever government — was truly serious about we as a people and our children, they wouldn’t be here trying to negotiate land,” said Senate Majority Leader Kenneth Gittens, who voted against the proposal. “They would give the land to the people to be able to educate them.”
The agreement still requires a signature by the governor and approval by the Department of the Interior.
Once the plan is finalized, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will 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, expected to exceed $100 million.
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, and is home to about 105,000 people.
St. John is the least populous of the main land masses, with 4,000 residents. Its only public school, Julius E. Sprauve School, only serves students through eighth grade, so about 213 high school students on St. John must take a 45-minute ferry to and from St. Thomas every day for classes.
Local and federal officials struggled for decades to find suitable land because about 60% of St. John is a national park and adjusting the boundaries or selling federal land requires congressional approval.
In 2019, Governor Albert Bryan Jr. offered to exchange ownership of part of a 55-acre parcel owned by the federal government with the uninhabited territory-owned island of Whistling Cay, which is within the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Supporters of the proposal argued that islanders have been trying to get a school on St. John for more than 50 years and it could take decades to get another chance.
“It’s time for us to come together, not just for the present but for generations to come. I will not hold the future of our children hostage,” said Senator Angel Bolques Jr. “We do not want this to go through our fingers like sand. We want to hold this opportunity.”
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 and include public athletic facilities, a meeting space and a hurricane shelter.
The school would accommodate 260 students from kindergarten to eighth grade and 200 high schoolers.
Critics of the plan, like Senator Franklin Johnson, felt the territory should have stood its ground.
“We don’t have to give up nothing,” he said. “Sometimes you have to dig in and fight. Nothing comes easy in this life. But if you’re willing to fight for it, there’s an opportunity and a chance.”
That tense history with the parks service wasn’t enough to kill the project, said Senate President Novelle Francis.
“We all have issues with the National Parks Service,” he said. “We have an opportunity of a lifetime. We have to do right by our children.”
Senator Milton Potter felt the proposal was an effective compromise.
“This isn’t a perfect deal in any way, shape or form,” he said. “By choosing to build a school we empower our children to thrive in an increasingly competitive world.”Follow @TheNolanStout
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