V.I. Education Department officials came under fire this week after lawmakers discovered the department was paying more than $300,000 a year to rent a “gravel parking lot” on St. Thomas.
The lot, located at 46A Estate Thomas, where the old “Cinema One” used to be, was leased by the department from C1 Building Inc., in August 2018.
Since then, it has been repurposed as a “bus turnaround” and parent drop-off area for students at Charlotte Amalie High School, Lockhart Elementary School and Addelita Cancryn Junior High School.
Education officials, attending a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, called the lot “critical” in accommodating the overflow of three school populations in close proximity.
Lawmakers, however, were less than impressed by the price tag — a staggering $30,481 monthly rate or $365,772 annually for the last two years.
“We’re paying $365,778 per year for a parking lot?” asked Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory, who brought up the issue at a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing.
Alvincent Hutson, legal counsel for the Education Department, said the fee was negotiated under the purview of the department’s previous leadership and via the V.I. Property and Procurement Department.
He added that the funding will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Frett-Gregory wasn’t satisfied.
“I don’t care where it’s being reimbursed from,” she said. “Paying $30,000 a month for a gravel lot begs a lot of questions. This is exactly why we keep ending up where we’re ending up.”
Senate Finance Chairman Kurt Vialet agreed, calling it a “blatant abuse of funding.”
When pressed on how the $300,000-plus figure was reached, Education officials had no answer, pointing instead to Property and Procurement’s negotiations.
Education officials were also vague in describing the lot’s future.
Education Department Chief Operating Officer Dionne Wells-Hedrington said the lease — which expired Friday — will be renegotiated and extended.
“We actually need that particular piece of property to fulfill what we really want to do … so we have upcoming negotiations to help us accomplish our goals,” she said.
Wells-Hedrington did not specify those goals or how useful an “overflow” parking lot will be amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in which V.I. public schools will operate on a “hybrid” schedule of both in-person and virtual instruction.