Minister Arrindell addresses Parliament June 29 2011

PHILIPSBURG - Opening Address of Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, Dr. Rhoda Arrindell at the 2011 Budget Session of Parliament, June 29, 2011.

Madam President,

Honorable Members of Parliament,

Colleagues in the Council of Ministers,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

According to Benjamin Franklin "The only thing more expensive than education is ignorance." This famous quote has been modernized to read: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." What this simply means is that no investment in education is too much. Conversely, we see how expensive it becomes not to focus on quality education. Just think of the social and economic problems our youth who do not make it through our education system face and sometimes even create for the larger population. I am sure none of us would cherish the idea of having to choose between building more prisons or more schools. But that is the choice we are faced with when our education system fails our youth.

Madam President, permit me to offer Parliament my own definition of education, which I gave at the retreat my Ministry held at the beginning of the year. I defined education in its broadest sense as "any experience that forms the mind, character or affects the physical ability of a person. It is the process by which society consciously and deliberately transmits its accumulated knowledge, skills and values from one generation to another. Education, therefore, whether formal or informal, academic or vocational, is the process of preparing an individual to become an independent, useful, and valued member of a society."

However, there is a difference between education and schooling. Thomas Moore makes this distinction very evident when he said, "One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated." My goal as Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs is for the many to be educated, while only a few, if at all, would be schooled.

Hence, our mission as ministry of education is "to deliver service to the population of St. Martin in all areas under our jurisdiction by providing and ensuring the implementation of effective and efficient systems which promote and secure equal opportunities and access to quality education, recreation, social, cultural and physical development for all the people of St. Martin."

Madam President, I had outlined some specific short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals for my ministry, derived from the definition of education I just offered. Since we are dealing with the budget of 2011, I will mention only the short-term goals we hope to achieve within this first year.

These are:

Continuing the implementation of Compulsory Education and reducing the school drop-out rate

Improving teacher performance and professionalism

Improving the overall learning environment

Finalizing current education law proposals, including the law on tertiary education

Establishing MOUs with providers of higher education so that there is continuity for students

Promoting studying in the region

Reorganizing the Ministry to reflect the current vision for Education, Culture, Sports and Youth

Starting the process of upgrading the Raoul Illidge Sports Complex

Creating a professional website for the Ministry with daily updates

Launching the "Get off the Block, Get on the Bus, Get Busy" (GB3) youth project.

Creating National Debating Teams and organizing Literary Competitions.

Establishing special programs for special needs students

Creating science and inventor circles in our schools

And establishing "Language Clubs" in the schools.

Madame President, you might ask why "Language Clubs"? This is because this ties in with the long-term goal of achieving "linguistic versatility." By this I mean that every graduate of secondary school on St. Martin should be able to speak, write, and communicate fluently in three to four international languages – English, Dutch, French, and Spanish. The enormous potential this would unleash in terms of a multi-lingual work force can only be imagined at the moment.

How many of these goals have been achieved so far and what is the cost of the total package? I can safely inform Parliament, Madam President, that although we are only half-way through the year, most of these goals are already in the process of being met or have in fact, been met.

The Compulsory Education campaign, I can report, was a success. Information sessions were held in town-hall style meetings in the various districts of the island. The implementation of this law is, of course, an on-going process. I wish to hereby commend the staff of my Ministry, in particular, the Division of Educational Innovations, DERPI, for the professional manner in which the campaign was executed. I also want to congratulate the winners of the Compulsory Education poster contest, Rheanne Arrindell of Oranje School and Tatiana Lionel of the MAC Browlia Maillard Campus.

Also, Madame President, just a few hours ago, I had the honor and privilege of signing an MOU with Monroe College, which will open up new possibilities for St. Martin students to pursue degree courses at this institution with campuses in New York and St. Lucia. While in St. Martin, the Monroe College delegation will be meeting with officials of USM as well as our Minister of Justice and members of his cabinet to further discuss areas of cooperation.

Addressing the concerns of the honorable MPs Dr. Lloyd Richardson, William Marlin, and Jules James regarding the issues at the University of St. Martin, I say the following:

Promoting studying in the region is not only dictated by budgetary considerations – it is cheaper while several of the institutions of higher learning offer world-class education – it is also a recognition of the fact that as a Caribbean people, our destiny lies within this region. The more of our students who we can encourage to study in the Caribbean, the more we would be enhancing that destiny.

Naturally, USM will continue to receive the attention it deserves as our island's premier institution of higher education. Just a couple of weeks ago, 55 students graduated from USM, the largest number in its little over 20 years existence. The confusion that preceded the Commencement Ceremonies has been clearly laid to rest: all the graduates received their diplomas and degrees duly signed by the President of the University, who has the authority to do so. However, not all is well with USM. The institution seems to be perennially strapped for cash and we are working with the board and management to seek a structural solution to its financial woes.

As I told the graduating class of 2011, I believe USM has a pivotal role in the development of St. Martin into a progressive, vibrant, modern-day society, with a thriving economy whose commanding heights are in the hands of our own people. I am also a product of USM. It is through USM that I obtained my Masters degree. I have a vested interest in its success and I am committed to ensuring this success with everyone involved assuming their respective responsibilities and doing their own share.

My ministry is currently working very closely with USM to help it through these challenging times. USM, I must stress, can and should be a center of academic excellence that attracts students and faculty from far and near, but always remaining relevant to the needs of St. Martin.

I agree that University of St. Martin should be accredited. In recognition of that need, the island government assisted USM in seconding one of its staff members, who USM assigned the task of accreditation officer. That was five years ago, and I imagine that USM will soon be able to reap the benefits of those efforts. Another step in the accreditation process is recognition of the university by government, which could not have happened prior to October 2010 because there was no legal framework for this. In the meantime, USM has submitted a request to be recognized at the entity authorized to grant Bachelor of Arts degrees in education. For that to happen, it is normal international standards that the program be evaluated. USM has agreed to such an evaluation, and an agency, recommended by government, has been identified to carry out the evaluation, and USM has agreed to pursue further discussion with the agency. I have not received updated information from USM on the status of this evaluation, for which government has agreed to pay half of the cost.

With regard to MP the Honorable Dr. Llloyd Richardson's remarks about cuts in scholarship, I am happy to inform Parliament that there were no cuts in study financing to study at USM. In fact, the amount, 4.2 million guilders in ongoing study financing and 5 million in new financing, has remained unchanged.

To the MP's suggestion to give instructions to USM to become accredited, I submit that USM is not a state university; it is privately-owned institution, run by a foundation. Because of this, government cannot give USM any instructions. These must come from the supervisory board.

With regard to MP William Marlin's comments on the signing of diplomas at USM, Madam President, I submit that I could not have changed my mind because I was never asked to sign the diplomas or degrees. In addition to the request to recognize the USM TEP program, I received a letter from USM, dated April 14, 2011, requesting me to hand over the diplomas to the TEP graduates. The fact is that in our system, ministers do not sign diplomas issued by the University. That authority lies with the president of the University and the dean of academic affairs.

Like everyone else, I am happy that the class of 2011, many of whom I taught, were able to successfully graduate. However, I humbly submit to the Members of Parliament that not everything you read in the media or hear on radio talk shows is necessarily the truth.

With regard to MPs William Marlin and Franz Richardson's comments on the Rebounce program: as the Honorable MP William Marlin stated in his presentation, there are no statistics to support his claims on the program. I believe that in these times of financial constraints any proliferation of similar programs and unnecessary duplication of efforts, which could lead to waste of scarce financial resources, should be avoided. The GB3 project was conceived as a comprehensive answer to the issue of at-risk youth. Government has begun a pilot project which should be completed at the end of this week, and once the report has been evaluated, we will know how to proceed with these efforts. Any request for subsidy for programs such as Rebounce will be viewed in this context.

Concerning the funding for sports facilities, I inform Parliament that there is NAF 74,000.00 budgeted for maintenance of the swimming pool at Raoul Illidge Sports Complex and another 236,000.00 to defray other expenses, such as electricity and water. For the LB Scott Sports Facility, there is 30,000.00 for maintenance and another 144,000.00 for other expenses for all sports facilities.

With regard to the participation of candidates in the management training course for educators, I inform Parliament that each school board was approached with the request to submit a list of members of their staff they would suggest to attend the management course, and the school boards submitted names of persons already management positions and those who they believed had the potential for managerial positions. As for the appointment of school managers, I (the Minister of Education) have not appointed any new school managers. In fact, I have not yet received the staffing plan for the 2011-2012 school year, but I understand it is in the final stages of preparation, and should be submitted to me by next week.

With regard the MP's suggestion to approach the Dutch with a request to apply a similar exemption granted to non-EU nationals to non-Dutch St. Martin residents, I suggest that maybe this is an issue for Members of Parliament to take up in a debate.

As far as I know, the only known report paid for by Dutch funds is the NA-CSI report of 2009 (attached), which included a chapter (4) on the USM TEP program. The Financial and Administrative Audit of USM report (attached), commissioned by the Executive Council of the Island Territory of St. Martin, by letter of September 13, 2010, also deals with the education program, but so far only a preliminary report has been prepared and made available to government. The final report is still pending. I am sure if the honorable MP Marlin is in possession of another report, he would be happy to share it with me.

In response to the honorable MP Roy Marlin's question about government providing incentives for students to return to St. Martin after their studies, I submit that this is not something for government alone. Government is already doing its part in terms of attracting qualified graduates to fill vacant positions in government. However, I believe the private sector also has to step up to the plate by offering incentives geared St. Martin graduates, not just in the Netherlands, but abroad in general.

I share the concerns of the honorable MP Johan Leonard about the precarious state of affairs with our young men and boys, whom I refer to as endangered species. This is precisely why the GB3 project was started. It was after the project started that we realized that we had to also include the girls and young women on the block. The GB3 project has a strong emphasis on education and (re)training, including vocational education. But I believe that this must be done in a way that our people can live in dignity. As the saying goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

Closing

Madam President, this is the time of the year when our students prepare to leave the island to pursue higher studies abroad. I am sure Parliament would be interested to know that the Study Financing Committee has concluded its work and submitted its report to me for review and approval. The Committee received a total of 273 applicants for Study Financing this year. Out of this number, 107 are for Holland, 90 for North America (US and Canada), 36 for Curacao and 26 for St. Martin (USM). The successful candidates for Study Financing will be informed accordingly by next week.

Let me turn attention to the field of culture. In terms of return on investment, no other area does as well as culture. Our cultural workers have consistently done us proud, despite the limited financial support they receive not only from government but from the private sector as well. The recent demonstrations in The Netherlands over drastic cuts in the budget for culture shows how important people over there take culture.

We have just witnessed the successful 9th Annual St. Martin Book Fair, organized by Conscious Lyrics Foundation, House of Nehesi Publishers in conjunction with the University of St. Martin and in collaboration with the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau. The Book Fair attracted none other than Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, whose mother was born on our island and who is related to some members of this august body and of government. Very few countries in the Caribbean can boast of having a Book Fair, and even fewer can beat their chests and say that a Nobel Laureate participated in their Book Fair. I wish to once again, commend the excellent work the organizers of the Book Fair have been doing.

Three books by St. Martin authors–Drisana Deborah Jack and Lasana Sekou—published by House of Nehesi will be used at universities in the United States, including Yale this coming semester. This is the mark of the quality of literary work produced on St. Martin, by St. Martiners. We cannot allow them to continue to face the kind of excruciating financial circumstances which many of them labor under. We have to put our money where our mouth is. Madam President, it is therefore my intention to return to Parliament soon to ask for approval to increase our allocations for culture in the 2012 budget.

This is a matter of national urgency. We all rejoice and are proud of the exploits of Nicole de Weever, who is starring in the hit Broadway musical FELA! which is now on a world tour. We are similarly proud of other Nicoles in the making like 10-year old Jeremiah David, and 14-year old Diofanny Diaz, both of the Imbali Center, for their incredible feat in winning gold and bronze in their respective categories at the recently concluded Confederation Nationale de Danse Concour National 2011 dance competition in Amiens, France.

In like manner, the whole island is full of praise for Isidore York, "The Mighty Dow," for being inducted recently into the Hall of Fame and receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trinidad. Dow is a professional to the core, who has shown that commitment and dedication to one's calling has its rewards.

As we continue to forge forward in our efforts at building a new St. Martin nation, I humbly submit, Madam President, that we can only succeed if we make culture its strong foundation, its solid rock. Anything less, anything else, would be shifting sands.

It is in view of this that I decided to offer the 2011 Carnival Queen full scholarship to study at USM. As a matter of policy, government shall be offering similar scholarships in the fields of culture, and sports.

Madam President, in a couple of days it will be July 1st, Emancipation Day. You may recall that during the budget debate in Parliament in December last year, I disclosed that it is one of my priorities to ensure that Emancipation Day becomes a National Public Holiday. Practically all the honorable Members of Parliament expressed support for this at the time.

The process to realize it began shortly after and the Council of Ministers approved it over two months ago. Since then, the draft law has been going through the formal procedure and route and I can inform you that we are now in the final stages before it is brought before Parliament.

Recognizing that a day as important as July 1st cannot remain just another day on the calendar for St. Martiners, the Council of Ministers has decided to grant all government workers the day off this Friday to celebrate Emancipation Day.

Parliament, through your good offices, Madam President, will also convene an Extraordinary Plenary Session to mark Emancipation Day. I note with great satisfaction that we are all on the same page in terms of acknowledging the historical weight and relevance of July 1st, and its significance for our collective self-esteem and dignity, as well as the transformative cultural process it has unleashed. This includes claiming the full measure of freedom fought for and won as of 1848 for the whole of St. Martin.

Madam President, at a Tripartite meeting I held recently with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the SHTA, and of the Chamber of Labour Unions I sought their support and urged them to grant their workers the day off either partially or in full this July 1st. They will, I hope, announce their decisions on this soon.

Where it concerns sports, Madam President, 2011 can be described as a year of planning. I am sure I need not remind you that I am a sportswoman and as such I am aware of the critical need for the upgrading of our sports facilities and a complete overhaul and revamping of our sports policy. I have a very important meeting with the Youth and Sports department tomorrow and another one with all sports stakeholders on July 14 to seek ways and means to bring our sports to the level it deserves.

I have been busy trying to separate the Department of Youth and Sports to create two independent departments so that each can focus better on their respective tasks.

Madam President, my vision for sports development on St. Martin does not embrace the notion of competing for competing sake. We can produce world beaters like St. Kitts, Curacao and other Caribbean countries. To do so, we have to ensure that sports become an integral part of our school curriculum. We have to train our trainers so they could become professionals in their fields. We have to re-organize sports administration to allow for more frequent and better-structured competitions. And of course, we must provide better and well-maintained facilities that meet international standards. This is the direction I want to take sports on St. Martin. We will get there only by proper planning and working together. Taking sports to the next level is a debt we owe our youth; it is a debt we cannot afford to default on.

Speaking about our youth, Madam President, this year we embarked on an ambitious project called "Get off the block, Get on the Bus, Get Busy" or GB-3. I have had the opportunity to make a presentation of this project to Parliament and I am very grateful for the popular support the project has been enjoying since it was launched. As I said before, GB-3 is a pilot project. By the end of this week, I expect to receive a report on how it has fared so far. We will then be able to determine how to tweak it, and make it meet its original goals.

Madam President, experts stress that investment in our youth and in education is the way to go in this 21st Century. We have to invest wisely and we must expect and demand satisfactory returns on our investment. However, if we fail to invest, we would be investing in our failure.

Let me conclude, Madam President, with the same Benjamin Franklin paraphrase I started with: "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

I thank you.

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