Thursday, August 20, 2009

State schools, state budget pain

Source Link - State schools, state budget pain

As far as state officials are concerned, the Ohio School for the Deaf and the Ohio State School for the Blind aren't really schools.

They're state agencies. So they have been forced, like other state agencies, to cut roughly 18 percent of their budgets since last school year and are struggling with where to make the largest of those cuts.

Some state agencies had to make greater cuts than the two schools, said Amanda Wurst, Gov. Ted Strickland's spokeswoman. She said state officials were mindful that at these agencies, kids could be affected.

Students at the school for the blind "will notice the effect, because we won't be providing as many opportunities for them," said Superintendent Cynthia Johnson.

Classroom teachers at both schools -- as well as in adult and juvenile prison schools -- are state employees, so they will be forced to take as many as 10 furlough days. Some of those days will be taken during the school year, officials say. (Teacher furloughs are a rarity in traditional Ohio school districts.)

The cuts are widespread, including areas such as textbooks, equipment that helps students communicate and pricier salad-bar items in the school cafeteria. Both schools will impose layoffs.

Edward E. Corbett Jr., the superintendent at the deaf school, said he thinks students realize that, in a bad economy, changes must be made.

At his school, 14 positions, including those of five teachers and a nurse, won't be filled, and substitute teachers will be used sparingly. Students might notice that their athletic activities will be cut back; already, the volleyball and football conditioning camps were canceled.

The school for the blind has stopped buying Braille textbooks and special equipment that helps students with multiple disabilities communicate. The work-study students who have jobs doing laundry or vending can still get that job training, but they will no longer be paid. Sports teams won't travel as much to compete.

State schools for the deaf and blind -- especially centralized, residential institutions like Ohio's -- are increasingly rare. But both schools here are more than 150 years old and have ardent supporters.

Most of their students would be difficult to serve in a school district because they have multiple disabilities in addition to significant vision or hearing impairments. About 130 students attend the school for the blind, and about 170 are enrolled at the school for the deaf.

After the most recent cuts are complete, the deaf school's budget will be about $8.7 million. The school for the blind has a $7.3 million budget for the coming, pared-down school year.

The state's mandatory cutbacks at its agencies have been a pitfall for the schools. But the deaf school's Corbett said he thinks it's best to be considered an agency; the school has the state's backing and can serve students from anywhere in Ohio.

Also, the status of both schools as state agencies means they don't have to go to voters to raise money.

In 2005, the state legislature gave the deaf school permission to accept grants and donations, and established a fund for those donations. Corbett said he uses that power for school trips and student activities. The fund rarely contains more than $2,000, and he doesn't think he can, or should, use it to hire more teachers or plug holes in the budget.

"It would help, certainly, but if the state says, 'Oh, you've got money, you don't need our support,' then what? I'm in a Catch-22 situation," Corbett said.

Rob Porter, a Xenia father, wanted his two toddlers to attend the Alice Cogswell Center preschool program at the school for the deaf in the coming school year.

Three-year-old Bo, who is deaf, is in a summer program there with his 2-year-old sister, Willa Kate, who is hearing. Porter wants Willa Kate to attend during the school year, too.

However, hearing children face a waiting list to enroll in the blended preschool, which focuses on teaching families to communicate by American Sign Language. A third teacher can't be hired.

"In the past, fundraising from car washes or bake sales have gone into a black hole somewhere in the state and never got here, where they were intended to end up," Porter said.

Porter wants legislators to put a hold on the cuts and furloughs and give the school explicit permission to raise operating money "that will allow us to go and save our own butts."

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