The Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf Advisory Board agreed Wednesday to write letters to state education officials and legislators voicing concerns over a bill that could drastically change the way the 55-year-old institution is funded and controlled.
House Bill 932, Residential School Administration, is co-sponsored by Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, home of the North Carolina School for the Deaf in Morganton, and Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, home of the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf.
ENCSD Director Michele Handley said the bill would create three 11-member boards of trustees that would govern both schools for the deaf and the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, one for each school.
Handley said she first heard of the bill when Farmer-Butterfield called her at 2 p.m. April 17.
“She said she had just received it from Rep. Blackwell and the submission deadline was 3 p.m. and she needed my feedback,” Handley said. “So I did my best to look at it and process and provide her with some meaningful feedback. Essentially what I said to her was I appreciated the General Assembly tending to us and paying attention to us in that way and just requested the opportunity to flesh the bill out a little more before anything became official.”
The bill passed an April 22 first reading in the House and was referred to the appropriations committee.
According to the bill, the boards of trustees would consist of four members appointed by the state House speaker, four members chosen by the Senate president pro-tem, two members selected by the governor and one member picked by the State Board of Education chair.
The bill would provide $1.5 million in recurring funds to be allocated to the schools to cover administrative functions. The Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf would receive a third of that, or $500,000.
Chairman Hal Wright, who is deaf, said the lack of input from the deaf community is a large concern for him.
“There is no wording involving the deaf community. Nothing in this bill says anything about the deaf community. That kills me. There is nothing,” Wright said. “We are talking about the deaf community, but where is the input from them? They are the best spokespeople. We have the experience. We’re deaf. That would be the best. We need more involvement.”
Vice Chairman Gary Farmer said he’d read the bill and was appreciative that the legislature was “thinking about us.”
“I thank them for that, but — and this is a big but — the brain trust here, the advisory council, knew nothing about it,” Farmer said. “You were contacted last-minute. You didn’t really have an opportunity to bring it to us. They want to do away with us as an advisory board.”
Farmer expressed concern that the 11 trustees who are going to make decisions may not know anything about deafness or blindness. He was also concerned that the trustees would be treated like a local educational agency.
“That means these 11 people will run the school basically, hire and fire at the recommendation of the superintendent,” Farmer said. Wright asked why there 11 board members at each school.
“Why? That’s too many. There are three schools. They could start fighting against each other. The thing is maybe they won’t work together. Maybe they will oppose each other,” Wright said. “I personally prefer one board, not three and the board itself is an LEA for all schools and automatically becomes an LEA for all schools and I prefer it that way so we can make sure that each team would work together, the west and the east and not a division of three schools and have three boards We will never win.”
Wright also had concerns over the money and the budget because the bill is unclear.
“Does the board make those decisions? Who makes those decisions?” Wright asked. “We will follow the law, yes, but there are some questions I would like to have answered before I say yes to this or no.”
Advisory council member Rob Boyette said legislators needed to give the current advisory boards time to digest the bill and look at it in more detail.
“There are some serious questions. No. 1 is truly the power it talks about in here invested in this board,” Boyette said. “This board has the ability to sell this property. This board has the ability to disband this school.”
Boyette said the current board has serious legal issues to consider.
“The funding is not spelled out very well at all and the funding mentioned is woefully inadequate to operate this school for any period of time and teach kids and that is a critical part to add,” Boyette said. “You can operate this school on $500,000, but would you properly train and educate students like they need to be? There has always been some element of local involvement, some opportunity for people in our communities be it in Morganton, be it here, be it in Raleigh, to have some involvement, some opportunity to be a part of what’s going on. That is not a part of this trustee board as currently designed.”
Handley said she had a range of concerns. She said the school would not be able to comply with the requirements set out in the bill as written, like providing a bus stop for every child.
“That’s untenable for us,” Handley said. “We serve 54 counties.” Handley has concerns that each board would be empowered to develop eligibility criteria for the school.
“Right now our model is equal programs. We have divided the state in half because in theory the programs are equal,” Handley said. “That is out the window and you could potentially find that there is competition. A child could be eligible for one school and not eligible for the other. That’s a problem. We don’t need to be in competition for one another.”