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May 24, 2022

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At state blind, deaf schools, cuts hit deeper

Services less buffered than at ordinary K-12 districts

The Columbian
Published:

Washington School for the Deaf

Campus enrollment: 121

Annual budget: $8.75 million

Potential 2011-13 annual reduction: $885,000

Washington State School for the Blind

Campus enrollment: 70

Annual budget: $6 million

Potential 2011-13 annual reduction: $599,000

Vancouver’s century-old state-run schools for blind and deaf students face the threat of daunting budget reductions over the next 32 months.

At first blush, there’s little difference from any K-12 public school district, so long as Olympia’s budget woes continue.

But unlike other schools, the two residential campuses don’t have the cushion of local property tax levies. Nor do they carry a million dollars or more in reserves.

They’re straight-up state agencies, and so must follow orders from Gov. Chris Gregoire to slash 6.3 percent of current spending by June 30, starting on Oct. 1. And they must designate another 3.7 percent to trim for the 2011-13 budget cycle.

If those orders stand, the Washington School for the Deaf and Washington State School for the Blind are poised to chop school days off the calendar, lay off teachers and residential supervision workers, and suspend or reduce outreach programs that serve disabled students statewide.

Washington School for the Deaf

Campus enrollment: 121

Annual budget: $8.75 million

Potential 2011-13 annual reduction: $885,000

Washington State School for the Blind

Campus enrollment: 70

Annual budget: $6 million

Potential 2011-13 annual reduction: $599,000

Entire preschool and early-elementary classes in Vancouver could vanish if the second cut imposed.

“If (WSD) had to close the elementary program, I’m not sure what we would do,” said Tricia Feir of Vancouver. She’s the mother of Meagan, 6, who attends kindergarten at WSD.

Equally worried is Toni Stromberg of La Center, the mother of two children served by the Center on Childhood Deafness-WSD (official moniker for the deaf education agency). Evan, 4, attends preschool and daughter Ella, 6, is in first grade.

WSD “opens the doors to education,” Stromberg said. Deaf and hearing-impaired students who attend mainstream schools can remain isolated and miss out on growth that occurs at the residential campus, she said.

La Center schools can’t match that, Stromberg said. And she laments the potential loss of WSD’s popular birth-to-age-3 outreach program, which was “vital” to her children.

There are no viable options but to prune programs that have proven successful, said Rick Hauan, director of the Childhood Deafness-WSD agency. That includes post-high school guidance to help graduates land meaningful work, a program just now building steam, he said.

“All of it is bad. Saying this (cut) is worse than that one is impossible to do,” Hauan said.

WSD’s state board of trustees, parents and employees helped to craft savings already in place. Six furlough days this school year prevented deeper cuts: Students will be off for all of Thanksgiving and Memorial Day weeks.

Also tabled is a video outreach program that beams tutorials to several dozen students across Washington.

Similarly, leaders at WSSB charted a menu of program cuts and potential new revenues that include scuttling a plan to boost Braille text production by Washington women prisoners, and contracting more services to Oregon school students.

If WSSB must adopt both rounds of cuts, it too could set furlough days and drop its preschool and early grades.

That would affect more Vancouver-area pupils at the 70-student campus but also shelter 1,500 others statewide who rely on contracted services, said Superintendent Dean Stenehjem.

Legislators ‘supportive’

Few good choices greet the two schools, which lie a half-mile apart, across Grand and Mill Plain boulevards.

They await a November state revenue forecast that will weigh on state legislators who gather in January in Olympia to begin writing the 2011-13 budget. Lawmakers also will modify Gregoire’s initial cuts (she has authority only to impose equal, across-the-board reductions).

Hauan and Stenehjem will lean on legislators who, along with Gregoire, have proved “very supportive” of the two schools, Hauan said. That includes Clark County lawmakers who’ve taken strong, bipartisan stands.

School leaders and parents cite the state’s “paramount” constitutional duty to pay for basic education. For hundreds of students, the two schools are essential to that task, they say.

“So he can get the deaf education he needs,” said Vancouver parent Heidi Redford, whose 9-year-old son, Dared, attends fourth grade at the Deaf school. “That’s my biggest fear, that the school will close down.”

No other K-12 schools in Washington evoke such doubt.

State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, vice-chairman on the House Education Appropriations Committee in Olympia, said lawmakers are well aware of the two campuses’ “unique” role.

“The Legislature, as a whole, understands the model and the Clark County delegation does come together on this,” he said.

The schools’ leaders hope for the best but are bracing for large changes. “I still think we’re facing years of (economic) recovery. We’ve got to think long and hard what we do,” Hauan said. “How are we going to be reshaped? How do we work with (school districts) to get the most bang for the buck?” he said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.

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