School for the Deaf and Blind can continue, may face extra scrutiny

School for the Deaf and Blind can continue, may face extra scrutiny

Senate, House, ASDB, deaf, blind
(From left): Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson; Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott; and Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, discuss continuation for Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind on March 29, 2023. The school is facing a shorter continuation timeline because Republicans in the Senate say there are issues with the agency that need to be scrutinized. (Photo by Camryn Sanchez/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind is facing a shorter continuation timeline because Republicans in the Senate say there are issues with the agency that need to be scrutinized but would not clarify what those may be.

Typically, the ASDB is continued every eight years, but Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, amended this year’s continuation bill to only extend the agency for two years, to the bewilderment of the school’s stakeholders.

Upset deaf and blind people cried, shook their heads and gave lawmakers in Hoffman’s government committee a thumbs-down as they passed the two-year continuation bill. The Democrats supported it under protest.

The same continuation bill passed out of the House of Representatives unanimously 60-0 but was held in the Senate Government Committee until Wednesday, the very last day for that committee to hear bills.

Sen. President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, told the Arizona Republic that there are “alarming things” about ASDB, but didn’t clarify what they are to the Republic or the Arizona Capitol Times. “Will share if we can verify the claims are true,” he said in a text on Wednesday.

Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, is on both the Senate Government and the Senate Education committees. Earlier this session, she filed a bill that would require ASDB to take on children who aren’t blind or deaf but have other disabilities. That bill, Senate Bill 1402, was strongly opposed by ASDB and didn’t pass the floor. ASDB Superintendent Annette Reichman is one of several people who believe that the sudden opposition to an eight-year continuation of ASDB has to do with the failure of Wadsack’s bill. “We can only surmise there is some connection between SB1402 and what’s happening right now with HB2456,” Reichman said on March 20.

Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, Senate committee, Republicans
Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind Superintendent Annette Reichman, on the end in the front row, and others expressed concern about the school facing a shorter continuation timeline. (Photo by Camryn Sanchez/Arizona Capitol Times)

Reichman has served in her role for more than six years and said she doesn’t know why this is happening. She was afraid that Hoffman wouldn’t hear the bill at all and said he wouldn’t meet with her.

“We have a constitutional duty to ensure that we are delivering optimal educational services for the deaf and blind students of this state. Allowing eight years to go by without legislative oversight is a failure of our job,” Hoffman said.

The ASDB continuation bill is the only agency continuation bill that went through his committee this year.

To make sure the schools wouldn’t close, Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, struck out the language in one of his bills in the Senate Education Committee, which also met for the last time on Wednesday. Cook amended House Bill 2291 to make it into a five-year-long ASDB continuation.

Senate Education Committee chair Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, agreed to hear Cook’s bill, which he called a “compromise” between two and eight years.

Cook said no one approached him asking for the striker, but rather he volunteered it. He said that if both bills come to a vote, he believes the five-year continuation will have more support than the two-year continuation.

Hoffman’s amendment was added to the bill on Tuesday afternoon, which surprised Democrats and ASDB. Hoffman said he had a general conversation with the Auditor General’s Office and it “didn’t bat an eye” at doing more frequent two-year audits. “I’m confident that the two-year continuation will be going forward,” Hoffman said.

Senate Majority Chief of Staff Josh Kredit and Hoffman both said it’s unlikely that both continuation bills will go forward. The question is which one Petersen will bring to a vote.

The Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind was founded in 1912 when Arizona became a state and serves blind, deaf, visually impaired, hard of hearing and deafblind students across the state from birth through the end of high school. ASDB has two schools for the deaf, one for the blind, an early learning program and “Itinerant Services” for students attending other schools that partner with ASDB. “ASDB is dedicated to empowering diverse, young children and students with the educational opportunities necessary to succeed in college, career and life,” according to its website statement.

Democrats asked why the ASDB is being subjected to this continuation change, but not other state agencies. Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix, called it “discrimination” against the deaf and blind community.

“I’m curious why ASDB is being singled out when the committee of reference had already signaled eight years,” Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, said in the education committee. “It seems like we are putting them [ASDB] through a great deal of anxiety.”

The auditor general’s most recent report on ASDB came out last year and included a series of minor recommendations the school said it’d comply with, such as providing conflict-of-interest training to employees.

Reichman noted that the report isn’t damning and is much more positive than the 2012 audit review which found that ASBD students were struggling and needed more support.

“We have had a clean audit, the auditor general had one finding – that finding we pointed out to them by the way because we knew it was an issue we needed to address. We had eight recommendations. It’s my understanding that when you (ask) for a one-year continuation it’s because the auditor general has come to you and said, ‘we have a list of serious concerns, and they need to be rectified completely.’ I have not yet heard that from anyone. I still do not know what the concerns are,” Reichman told the education committee.

“Even at the school board level, right, this is a constant review process that occurs every single year. And so, you know, our job, we have a constitutional obligation to provide educational services for the deaf and the blind,” Hoffman said.

Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, argued that the financial audits other schools go through are not similar to performance review audits conducted by the auditor general, concluding that it’s not comparable.

The ASDB also has a board that reviews its finances every couple of months.

Deanne Bray-Kotsur, who is deaf, told the panel that an audit takes several months and requires a lot of staff resources that should be going to educating the students. She asked lawmakers to work with deaf and blind people in the future. “Nothing about us, without us. You need deaf people collaborating with you,” Bray-Kotsur said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne spoke in favor of Cook’s bill at the education hearing on Wednesday afternoon but said he’d prefer an eight-year continuation. He also warned that not continuing ASDB could be a violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that students with disabilities get a “free appropriate public education” tailored to their needs.

A two-year continuation and a five-year continuation are not necessarily the only two options on the table. The bills can be amended again in the Senate Committee of the Whole and an entirely different continuation timeline, like eight years, could be implemented. Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, and Mendez indicated that they’ll fight for that.