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US Virgin Islands finalizes land swap deal to build school despite concerns over historic cay

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday finalized a long-awaited deal that will allow officials to build a public school on St. John as part of a land swap that many opposed because it involves an island with historical ties to slavery.

The deal with the U.S. National Park Service means the U.S. Virgin Islands will give up an uninhabited island known as Whistling Cay in exchange for a historic property on St. John where an elementary and high school will be built.

“This achievement has been more than 50 years in the making,” said Gov. Albertson Bryan, adding that it will provide equitable educational opportunities for students on St. John.

Those who oppose the swap say they worry the history of Whistling Cay will be forgotten and that too much land they consider ancestral already has been turned over to the federal government.

Whistling Cay has a guardhouse that colonial-era officials used to scan waters for slaves escaping from St. John to the nearby island of Tortola. At the time. St. John was part of the Danish West Indies, where slavery ended in 1848. Meanwhile, Tortola is part of the British Virgin Islands, which abolished slavery in 1834.

The local government on Monday did not address concerns involving Whistling Cay, but said in a statement that the “culturally significant land and artifacts” at the estate would be preserved during the construction of an elementary and high school.

Currently, public high school students living on St. John have to take a ferry to the neighboring island of St. Thomas.

Construction of the new school will be financed by more than $133 million committed by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.