Story published: Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009

The Olathe News

School for the Deaf on the budget chopping block

staff writer

As Kansas leaders continue to look for ways to address the state’s growing financial crisis, the School for the Deaf in Olathe could be next on the chopping block.

Despite a pledge from Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to hold harmless public education as the state grapples with a $190 million deficit in 2009 and a budget shortfall that could reach past $1 billion in 2010, she recently created a panel to study whether the closure or realignment of the School for the Deaf and School for the Blind would save the state money.

The schools have a dual role as educational facilities for school-aged deaf and blind children in Kansas and agencies.

The Facilities Closure and Realignment Commission created by the governor will also study Beloit Juvenile Correctional Facility, state developmental disability hospitals and Rainbow Mental Health Facility in Kansas City, Kan., to see whether closure or realignment of those facilities could render additional savings.

For Larry Finn, a sixth-grade teacher who has taught at KSD since 1973, closure of the school would be detrimental to deaf children in Kansas.

The school provides services that would be difficult - if not impossible - to duplicate in pubic school districts, Finn said.

The result: deaf children in Kansas could fall behind in an education not tailored to their needs, without deaf adult role models and the access to language they receive at KSD.

“To understand the potential impact (of closing the school) you have to understand how KSD is different,” Finn said. “Public school programs can provide certain services, but we provide an environment where kids have complete access to sign language, in the classroom, dorms, cafeteria, playing sports. This is how our students tap into the incidental learning that happens naturally among their hearing peers.”

Students are immersed in an American Sign Language program from their first day, Finn said, and are taught both ASL and English.

Some current KSD students came from “mainstream” programs, he added, that were for different reasons not appropriate for their learning needs.

“I know we’re expected to do our part, because the state is in a serious financial bind, but putting (students) back in those programs might create additional problems,” Finn said. “There are a lot of great public school programs out there, but they’re not for everyone.”

KSD has absorbed about $215,000 in cuts in the current budget year so far, leading to the freezing of vacant positions, cutting back on dorm staff and having existing staff take on additional responsibilities, KSD Superintendent Robert Maile said.

Sebelius’ budget recommendations for 2010 would cut an additional $500,000 from the school’s budget, which could lead to shortening the school year, he said.

“We can’t come up with the reduction unless we remove personnel or shorten the days they work,” Maile said. “We’d like not to dismiss employees if we can handle it, so we’ll try to cut back the number of work days in the year so it’s a larger number of people taking a small reduction in pay.”

Those plans are soft, though, as no one knows yet what the Legislature will do.

KSD has been considered for closure or realignment in three previous studies, Maile said, but each time the state determined the school provided services that can’t be provided anywhere else.

“The only difference (this time) is the budget situation is more critical now than it has been in the past,” Maile said. “They may be looking at their options more carefully. We’re really concerned, of course, but I’m optimistic.”

Petra Horn-Marsh, who is deaf, works as a bilingual specialist at KSD. She has five children, two of whom are deaf and attend the school.

Closing the school would be a bad investment for the state, she said, because deaf students would be left behind and could have “emotional baggage” from not having daily access to a language-rich environment like KSD.

“The education is equal to what a public school offers, but the difference is in the language accessibility,” Horn-Marsh said. “Students have the opportunity to interact with hearing people, also, so that’s not a problem. It’s not as isolated as what some believe.”

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students receive the education they need but are also prepared to live as independently as possible at KSD, Horn-Marsh said.

Without the school, deaf children could later have to depend on other state services or group homes.

Continued socialization and interaction in the campus’ dorm environment is another plus, she said.

“The services here are wonderful,” Horn-Marsh said. “The pace of the education matches their needs. It would be a bad investment to consolidate or close the school.”

KSD, founded in 1866, also functions as a statewide resource on deafness for families and school districts. It is accredited through the state’s Department of Education and also by the North Central Association, a national accrediting body.

The school has about 135 students this year, about half of which are day students from area school districts. The rest are comprised of residential students from elsewhere around the state.

Closing the school would transfer the students to local school districts. Serving a very small population of deaf students is cost-prohibitive for most districts, especially those in rural areas, Maile said.

Deafness is a low-incidence disability. Kansas has about 650 school-aged deaf children across the state.

Finn said he understands why Kansas would look at the school and other agencies, but also said he wants the state to look at KSD as a school as well as a state agency.

“I don’t want them to balance the budget on the backs of our deaf kids,” he said. “They talk about having minimum impact on schools, so I hope they put us in that category.”

The Commission has until Dec. 1 to make recommendations regarding the facilities to be closed and/or realigned, and recommendations for how and when that could take place.

The panel will consider the savings that could accrue, the impact of closure on clients and their families, the availability of alternative services and the economic impact of closure when reaching its conclusions, Sebelius’ executive order states, as well as the feasibility of the using the facilities for other means and the impact on employees.

Though closing the school would undoubtedly affect staff as well as students, Finn said he isn’t worried about losing his job.

“None of us want the school to close,” he said. “My biggest concern is for the kids, not for me and my job. Most of us could go find another job somewhere. I’m not sure the kids could find a similar educational placement elsewhere.”