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December 8, 2003

Audit may imperil deaf-blind school

From: St. Petersburg Times, FL - Dec 8, 2003

Questionable spending has exposed a rift: Some see the school as a gem; others want it closed.

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer Published December 8, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - For more than a century, the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind has helped deaf children find their voice and blind children discover beauty. The residential public school has enjoyed near sacrosanct status among lawmakers despite steep operational costs.

That could change today.

Members of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee have summoned school officials to Tallahassee to discuss a scathing state audit pointing out financial mismanagement.

The cases cited include questionable land deals in which the school twice received state money to buy the same parcel of land and in which it failed to get appraisals for the properties. The school also is accused of illegally paying a lobbyist $160,000 in state funds and placing more than $1-million in private bank accounts instead of in the state treasury as required.

Through a spokeswoman, school president Elmer L. Dillingham declined to comment, pending legislative action on the audit. The school disputes many of the findings and suggests many of the state laws cited by auditors don't apply to the school.

But Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, whose district includes the school and who asked the committee to look at the audit, had plenty to say.

"Some decisions made in the last couple of years by trustees were questionable at best," Wiles said.

Critics of the school are using the audit as an opportunity to suggest that the 120-year-old school - which has more than 800 students, an operating budget in excess of $30-million and alumni including musician Ray Charles - has outlived its purpose and should be phased out or downsized.

"The institute is a dinosaur. It's archaic. It's a throwback to the 1800s," said Steve Howells, program director with the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities in Tallahassee.

Howells, who is blind, said the time has passed for educating blind and deaf children in a separate school.

"There is no good reason for this school to exist," Howells said.

The school has enjoyed legislative support since 1883, when lawmakers spent $20,000 to create it. The school's first two graduates, Artemas W. Pope and Cora Carlton, married and produced one of the most legendary lawmakers in Florida history: Democratic Sen. Verle A. Pope. As a child of deaf parents, Pope communicated only in sign language until he was 5, when his grandfather taught him to speak.

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, whose district includes the school, has fought for more money to help the school expand and keep its teacher salaries competitive with district teachers.

Even Wiles said he's a big supporter of the school, which is why he wants it held accountable for its financial practices.

"The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind is a model for other schools nationwide," Wiles said. "It has got a duty to account for the findings."

Wiles' request for the audit review prompted an angry response from state Board of Education member William Proctor, a former member of the school's board of trustees. In a letter to committee chairman Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, Proctor said he has met with state education officials and encouraged Sansom to do the same before putting the audit on the committee's agenda.

Despite his position as chairman of the school's board of trustees for much of the time examined by auditors, Proctor denied having a conflict of interest in trying to smooth things over.

"As a member of the state Board of Education, I cannot conceive that I have any more pressing objective than to represent the interests of this school," Proctor said.

The audit distorted the land deals, Proctor contends. Because the school lacks the power to condemn property, it had to make offers for some of the properties before homeowners would allow appraisers in the door, he said. After the price went up, the school had to request more money from the state for the same parcels, Proctor said.

The school already has addressed many other issues in the audit, he said. But some deaf and blind advocates say fixing the problems in the audit won't change the fact that the school is no longer needed.

Florida law guarantees every student in the state a "free and appropriate" education, even when that means spending far more on students with exceptional needs. Florida spends more than $45,000 per student at the school to cover room and board, tuition and transportation, compared with the state average of $5,500 per student.

The law also requires disabled students to be educated in the "least restrictive" environment, meaning they should be removed from their regular school districts only if they cannot get a satisfactory education even with special accommodations. A 1994 state audit criticized the school, saying that less than 10 percent of the time, the school was able to document that it was the least restrictive environment for the students.

Yet other advocates say learning in a deaf environment is important for many, even if it isn't the least restrictive option. A majority of the school's students are deaf.

"That's a touchstone in the deaf community: Where did you go to school?" said Lyle T. Romer, co-editor of the book Welcoming Students Who Are Deaf-Blind into Typical Classrooms: Facilitating School Participation, Learning, and Friendship.

Indeed, much has been written about a growing sentiment among some deaf people that their lack of hearing doesn't make them disabled at all.

"It should have been phased out years ago," Howells said of the school.

Most of the school's students can and should be educated within their own school districts, and isolating them from the rest of the world when they are young will not teach them to survive after they graduate, Howells said.

But Wiles, even as he demands answers from the school, is not interested in changing its mission.

"The school does a remarkable job with the kids," Wiles said. "It's a chance to do something better."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2002, 2003 St. Petersburg Times.