PHILIPSBURG:--- I have now served as your minister of education, culture, youth and sport for two weeks and two days. These two weeks have been challenging as many things have been happening simultaneously. The primary task of this interim Romeo-Marlin cabinet is to bring St. Maarten through these critical months ahead as we recover from one devastating hurricane season and prepare as a nation to face the seasons ahead. As I have indicated before, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Youth and Sport has been significantly hit in terms of damages to our infrastructure. I do not believe there has been one school, cultural or sporting facility that has escaped unscathed. Damages are summarized in the MRP plan to be approximately 40-60 million US dollars. I say this not to preach doom and gloom but to indicate the enormous task ahead.
A first expectation that I have is the availability of the insurance claim disbursement, that is taking too long and I fear that it is nowhere near enough with anticipated under insurance of the government insurance policy which include the schools, sport facilities and cultural facilities such as the library. I have emphasized the importance to this matter with my colleague ministers and we look forward to complete an advice to the Council of Ministers (COM) which remained lingering since October/ November last year. This advice should enforce the decision by COM to establish a core group to which I would like to add a member representing Education, Sport and Culture as this will help to represent the interest of schools and other organizations. The advise also clarifies how the first advance of 1 million US Dollars prior to the settlement of the claim should be made. NAGICO emphasized that this and possibly more advances can and should go to reconstruction of critical priorities such as the schools. The core group will be invited back to COM to discuss progress and these decisions for the first advance.
I am reminded by families and sport organizations that athletes and children are in dire need of recreational activities and restart of sport programs and training. I, therefore, urged the completion and signed off the first of 2 advises for repairs of various sport facilities such as Melford Hazel and the community basketball courts. These payments will be paid out of the emergency budget the government has available and this will be made through an incidental subsidy to the National Sport Institute (NSI). A meeting with NSI has also been scheduled to discuss their task in the supervision and maintenance of the government-owned sport facilities. I care to also include the partnership with the sport department and the NSI to ensure we expand on the organization of sport programs in the months ahead.
The COM ensured and reiterated the importance of the approval of the budget 2018 and once the budget 2018 will be critically reviewed and debated in parliament, I hope that proposed capital expenditures provides another avenue to invest for the repairs and reconstruction we are unable to receive via our insurance. The consultations has to be done in close partnership as this also relates to the third and of course most talked about option of the Dutch funding made available through the World Bank. The Ministry has been working tirelessly to ensure that we meet the requirements set by the World Bank while taking care of our day to day responsibilities. I care to commend the Ministry for the clear advancement of the MRP and the preparation of project plans. The Ministry has held several meetings with World Bank representatives and DBB yesterday and I have personally met with them to indicate that this Ministry in particular needs assistance immediately as it is one of the hardest hit. As minister I have also requested a separate chapter for education in the National Recovery Plan and to ensure that sport, youth and culture will be seen as cross-cutting themes throughout SXM NRP.
The Ministry has already submitted projects for funding review; projects such as the temporary re-location of the library, the monument restoration project, risk preparedness and training programs and the renovation of schools are examples just to highlight a few. We have received positive feedback, while they emphasized that we have to submit projects that really focus on recovery and not on development and we are hopeful that the Netherlands and the World bank will indeed be supportive and favorable of additional advances to the 550 million euro as we all know that repairs of schools need to be prepared and executed with the relevant requirements such as a Terms Of Reference, a bidding process and further quality. It is imperative that schools are fixed, that our sporting facilities are back in proper shape so that our athletes can continue to train for local, regional and international competitions. Our monuments and cultural institutions help us to connect and celebrate our national identity and they must be fully restored. It is very important that we continue to not only move towards a sense of normalcy after Hurricane Irma but to totally ensure that we are prepared for the next hurricane season.
On a positive note however, I have been able to have several successful meetings with key stakeholders in the ECYS ministry; the University of St. Martin, Charlotte Brookson Academy, St. Maarten Academy and the Youth Brigade among others. This morning, I had a very fruitful and constructive meeting with the President of the Windward Island Teacher’s Union, relating to some of the concerns teachers have expressed to the Union. Matters relating to extended hours, vacation days in the summer, fatigue and compensation. I am happy to inform that we have good sound constructive agreements for the way forward addressing these matters and I will inform further of the outcome and agreements made.
In the meeting of my cabinet and I with representatives of the University of St. Martin both parties re-confirmed the agreements made in the MOU and I was very pleased to be provided with the second set of financial reports. I am a firm believer that tertiary education should not just be seen as a soft or social factor but also as a strong economic driver. Education accounts for 6% of the total GDP of the island and it is time we fully realize the University’s full potential, not just as a tool in educating our population, but with the right guidance and the full support from Government USM and other tertiary institutes can further contribute to the economy of St. Maarten.
I also has a very positive introductory meeting with the school managers of the public schools. In that meeting I was able to share pertinent details of the Ministry’s Resilience Plan. At the meeting the school managers were encouraged to share on the social well-being of their teachers and administrative staff as well as what if any post-Irma challenges they were still dealing with. They did indicate that the immediate need for critical structural repairs as it pertains to the overall safety and staff security was still a big concern for most of the public schools. The safeguarding of tangible investments such as furniture and school materials were also areas of concern. I was able to reassure them that the Ministry was already looking at avenues through which the repairs could be executed. I also strongly encouraged however that in addition the managers make use of every alternative avenue of funding, especially through initiatives such as SXM Doet. I again take this opportunity to encourage all within the sound of my voice to volunteer on March 9th and 10th as a testament to our resiliency where we display a sense of community and patriotism as we all pitch in to get our island back to where it needs to be.
In addition, as mentioned I was also able to dialogue with Board and management from the Charlotte Brookson Academy. The school which has already faced several uphill battles continues to experience problems related to its proximity to the landfill. The health and safety of our students is my number one priority and as such an immediate solution needs to be found for the students, teacher and administrative staff. In the weeks ahead our focus will be on school repairs, disaster preparation and risk management. Technical support in this area has been contracted to assist in the damage assessments of the ECYS facilities including all the schools, sporting facilities and monuments. It is paramount that a proper planning is done and we take proper measures that we restore and build back better and smarter.
So, at my cabinet the word of the day is always “recovery, recovery, recovery”. Everything we do, every meeting we set, every project we initiate it has that main focus in mind. As I mentioned earlier my number one priority is to always ensure the safety and security of our students, administrative and teaching staffs. Disaster management and preparedness runs a close second as we HAVE to be prepared to face this next hurricane season. Recognizing undervalued sources of income to the economy of St. Maarten such as through tertiary education and even the creative arts is also something I intend to focus on during my tenure. We have certainly hit the ground running and I am eager to see the results of our labor come to fruition.
I’d like to end with a quote from the late Vance James Jr. I was privileged to attend over the weekend the Lionel Bernard Scott Memorial Lecture held at the University of St. Martin. After a professional lecture by Neil Henderson of Henderson Insurances, and being a previous lecturer myself, I purchased two books of past lecturers, Vance James Jr. and Camille E. Baly. Mr. James during his 2005 lecture spoke these words that I find especially now so inspiring, he says “Our future has and is being shaped by not waiting on others to do but DOING for ourselves anchored in the belief: WE CAN. This belief is evident in the lives and actions of our people throughout our history in every area. Not accepting we CAN’T...BELIEVING YES WE CAN.