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Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Rob Wallace and Assistant Secretary of Insular and International Affairs Douglas Domenech sign a preliminary agreement Thursday to pursue a land swap between the National Park Service and the Virgin Islands. The agreement opens the door for a new public high school on St. John. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. also participated in the signing.

A new public school on St. John is now one step closer to reality.

On Thursday, the Trump administration signed a preliminary agreement to pursue a land swap between the National Park Service and the Virgin Islands.

The swap involves an 11-acre parcel on St. John within the V.I. National Park, and Whistling Cay, an 18-acre island north of St. John that is currently owned by the V.I. government.

The exchange, once complete, will allow local officials to begin development of a K-12 public school within that 11-acre parcel, located in Estate Catherineburg. The new school will address a longstanding shortcoming of St. John, which to date has its high schoolers traveling to St. Thomas.

“This preliminary agreement is a promissory note to the students of St. John,” said Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. in a statement. “We need this land exchange to finally guarantee an excellent, safe education for all Virgin Islands students.”

Bryan offered Whistling Cay for consideration in the swap in November 2019.

Under the non-binding agreement, the Department of the Interior and the V.I. government will work together over the next year to “fully evaluate the opportunity for a land swap,” according to a statement from Government House.

There will be multiple opportunities for the public to participate in the process and share their thoughts while the National Park Service and V.I. government work together on appraisals for the two parcels and complete environmental and historic preservation compliance requirements, the statement continued.

The National Park will keep the public updated about public comment opportunities through the park’s website at www.nps.gov and social media.

The journey toward a new public high school on St. John has been fraught with challenges, both in terms of finding a suitable location on suitable land, and in dealing with the V.I. National Park, which covers roughly 60% of the island.

Currently, St. John students can attend the Julius E. Sprauve School for K-8 education but must travel by ferry to St. Thomas for grades 9-12. The Gifft Hill School on St. John includes high school education but it is a private school. At a recent virtual town hall, V.I. Education Department officials hinted that a Land Exchange Task Force, comprised of stakeholders like the National Park Service, were close to finalizing a location for the St. John school.

In their initial assessment, Education officials said the school would accommodate up to 460 students and include separate learning areas for elementary, middle and high school students. Other features include a gym, a common building for dining, gatherings and performing arts, and a media center among other amenities.

The Education Department’s Chief Operations Officer Dionne Wells-Hedrington called Thursday’s signing the “first step in the right direction” to acquire land for the new high school.

“It has been over 33 years in the making,” she said. “It is a very monumental time for the community of St. John and the Virgin Islands Department of Education. We thank Gov. Bryan for his commitment and the Land Exchange Committee for their diligence. We are forging forward.”

In a statement, Assistant Secretary of Insular and International Affairs Douglas Domenech, congratulated all parties involved in bringing the preliminary agreement to fruition.

“The Office of Insular Affairs team has worked hard to help facilitate the exchange of lands between the National Park Service and the Government of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and we are pleased to provide the necessary funding support and to help ensure successful next steps,” he said.

In September, the Office of Insular Affairs provided $300,000 to the National Park Service to help fund the pre-requisite environmental compliance process to assess the impacts from actions associated with the exchange of lands on both people and resources.

The environmental compliance process will evaluate the impacts of the intended use on cultural and natural resources as well as give the public ample opportunities to make their voice heard.

— Contact A.J. Rao at 340-714-9104 or email ajrao@dailynews.vi.