Committee narrows options on services to deaf and blind students

Combined services at Vinton braille school is off the table

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VINTON - A committee studying education services for the state's blind and deaf students does not favor consolidating services at a new centrally located site nor combining services into one site at the former Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton.

Options that remain on the table then include five regional sites around the state for deaf and blind students, which may or may not include a residential option; keeping services headquartered at Vinton and at the Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs; having a single campus with combined services in Council Bluffs; and centralizing the administration and coordination of services for both populations.

The various options still on the table would save between $287,000 and $2.4 million, with the most savings if there is no residential model, or cost up to $3.9 million more, with the scenario of regional centers and a residential school model. The committee met Monday in Johnston.

The Board of Regents oversees the state's two special schools and charged the feasibility and planning study committee with looking at the effectiveness and efficiency of those services.

Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the School for the Deaf and head of the statewide Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said committee members hope to make recommendations to the regents in December. The intent of the changes, Clancy said, is "not to take away from the continuum of services for the students" but to fill the service gaps. This is the first study to look at services for blind and deaf student populations together, Clancy said.

After the meeting Monday, a public hearing was held via the Iowa Communications Network at seven sites around the state, including Vinton. It's the third public hearing the committee has held during the process, and 50 people spoke from the various sites. Graduates and supporters of the deaf school and the former braille school made impassioned pleas to save the programs that target those populations, and several speakers said they do not want to see services for those two populations consolidated.

The National Federation of the Blind of Iowa is opposed to any merging of programs for blind students and deaf students, said federation President Michael Barber of Des Moines.

"We have unique needs, just as the people who are deaf have unique needs," he said. "We're urging you not to merge these programs."

Past changes have narrowed the options for blind and visually impaired students, several speakers said, and they don't want to see that trend continue.

Talk of blending the two populations is silly, said Coralville resident Doug Wolff, a federation member. Closing the residential program at the braille school left those students feeling isolated under the current model, he said.

"They truly have made some mistakes," Wolff said of past regents' decisions regarding the blind school.

A study several years ago resulted in the closing of the residential school for blind students. The Vinton campus is now the headquarters of the statewide system for vision services, which serves hundreds of students around the state, and also holds weekend and summer programs for blind students.

Numerous Iowa School for the Deaf graduates talked about how that school changed their lives and helped them succeed, by giving them a population of fellow deaf students with whom to interact and use sign language. They urged the committee to recommend keeping the residential deaf school open.

Committee members said financial savings aren't the only consideration. Their first priority is looking at the services provided, what is needed and the best ways to do that equitably around the state, members said.

One committee member said the group is too focused on specific locations or keeping certain buildings.

"We’ve become so focused on site specifics," said Kenda Jochimsen, with Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services. "What we should be looking at is programmatic integrity and outcomes."

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