New law benefits schools for blind, deaf

Accounting change ends annual forfeiting of savings

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

While school officials all across the state were anxiously awaiting budget news out of Olympia, two Vancouver schools for people with disabilities had already received their good news out of the Legislature.

Senate Bill 2757 created new, separate accounts for the schools for the blind and deaf. It sailed through the House and Senate, and was signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire late last month. It eliminates an accounting hurdle for the schools and in the process save programs for blind and deaf children statewide.

Two Vancouver Democrats — Rep. Jim Moeller and Sen. Craig Pridemore — had championed the bill at the request of the Washington School for the Blind and the Center for Childhood Deafness, said Dean Stenehjem, the superintendent of the school for the blind.

The schools will be able to deposit money from nonstate grants and fees into the new accounts.

The two schools have a different status than mainstream public schools, because they do more than provide instruction for the students who come into their buildings. They also are standalone state agencies, serving blind and deaf students who attend schools in their home districts across the state.

And state agencies can’t carry over fund balances — unspent money — from one year into the next, Stenehjem said. Instead, the money goes back into the state general fund.

That makes sense for money the schools received from the state in the first place. But both schools also get money from other sources, and until now had to funnel any unspent portions of that into the state coffers at the end of the fiscal year.

School districts pay the Vancouver agencies for services they provide to the districts’ deaf and blind students. The agencies also receive money from the federal government.

And the School for the Blind takes in some Oregon students — for a fee — since that state’s school for the blind closed three years ago.

The new law sets up special accounts the two schools use to deposit any contract fees, tuition, grant monies or other nonstate payments. Any money remaining in the accounts at the end of the year will remain there, allowing the schools greater flexibility with their finances.

This winter, for example, has been relatively mild, which meant lower heating costs and fewer employees on sick leave, saving money, Stenehjem said.

Those savings can now be used against current or future cuts in state funding, instead of disappearing at the end of the year.

The School for the Blind gets about $5.7 million from the state each year. It gets another $1.7 million in fees, out-of-state tuition and grants.

The Center for Childhood Deafness gets much less nonstate money — about $300,000 out of a budget of about $8.5 million, said Rick Hauan, its director. But it is seeing a dramatic increase in contract services, which will go into the new account.

The added flexibility will allow the schools to offer more services for deaf and blind students without using up more of the state’s money, both administrators said.

“It’s a win for taxpayers and a win for kids,” Hauan said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; http://twitter.com/col_schools; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com.