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by B. T. Kimbrough

School's Out

All of the classrooms at the Oregon School for the Blind stand dark and empty since the school was officially closed on September 1, 2009. No grades will be given out for the learning this empty school has to offer these days, and the lessons it teaches are not about the relative merits of the special school versus the mainstreaming experience. That's a matter of individual choice, at least as long as there is a residential school in the equation.

Also not in the curriculum is a passionate lament for the fact that most residential schools for the blind now predominantly serve children with multiple disabilities. Many state schools have grown and stretched in amazing ways in order to welcome and teach multiply-disabled students, and they are to be commended, not condemned, for it.

What I want to do instead is share with you some of my own real-life education fighting for the life of a 136-year-old residential school for the blind. In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the school's Board of Directors and personally believe that the abrupt closing of the school damaged statewide education for blind K through12 Oregonians for years to come.

Huge budget reductions and consolidated government programs were the expected norm for the 2009 Oregon Legislative Assembly. Projected revenue shortfalls as well as a state constitutional clause outlawing budget deficits left the legislators with many hard choices. In that climate, a closure bill for OSB might have been expected, although the school's two-year budget of less than ten million dollars would not offer much savings, considering that blind K through 12 students still have to be educated with or without the Oregon School for the Blind.

So what was it about this small, 136-year-old school for the blind that made it the focus of such intense opposition during such a tumultuous legislative session? The most obvious answer concerns the immensely valuable seven-acre tract of land which became the site of its campus in 1894. Developers have long coveted the property because of its proximity to downtown Salem, and its nearness to the Capitol building. A nearby hospital and a neighboring university are both woefully short on land for expansion unless the school campus should become available.

Others suggested an additional reason for the school's unpopularity with their legislators: Apparently, the school has been a source of various conflicts in the state assembly for at least the last fifty years. Many times reorganizations, proposed mergers with the Oregon School for the Deaf and various proposals for closure were introduced and pursued, only to be beaten, or postponed at the very last minute. There are those who believe that the 2009 closure was mostly a result of legislative battle fatigue with the whole subject of the school for the blind.

A case can also be made that supporters of the school were caught off guard. When the word "closure" crept into discussions about the Oregon School for the Blind in the state capital of Salem in mid-February of this year, few of the school's many supporters took it seriously. Most everyone was concentrating as they had for many years on resisting the latest effort by the Oregon Department of Education to move the school to the campus of the Oregon School for the Deaf. The co-location plan called for sale of the OSB campus with its seven acres of prime real estate. Money from the sale would then create accommodations for blind students alongside the somewhat larger Oregon School for the Deaf. Supporters claimed that co-location would save at least $1.3 million a year through combining dining and dormitory facilities and reducing maintenance staff. OSB supporters did not want to give up a campus they loved to move to a more dangerous grid of streets dotted with railroad tracks and other hazards. They argued that the disruptive move was unjustified for projected annual savings which were only theoretical.

In order to use the money from a projected sale of OSB property for the co-location project, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) had to obtain legislative authority. The moment that Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo announced her intention to seek the enabling legislation, the boards of directors of both the Oregon Schools for the Blind and Deaf appealed to the state Board of Education. The appeals were denied by the State Board in mid-February, and the House Education Committee soon scheduled a first hearing on what was still essentially a co-location proposal.

An Unscheduled Exam

When House Education Committee Chair, Rep. Sara Gelser, announced at the hearing that the committee would actually be choosing between co-location and closure of the School for the Blind, few still took the prospect of closure seriously. There was, in fact, little evidence of the energetic coalition between disability rights activists and senior legislative leaders which would rocket a closure bill through the legislative process in just over 90 days.

During that first hearing, a first small clue appeared in the form of testimony from a person employed by the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities, a powerful interest group concerned not with blindness, but with the learning, attention, and developmental issues also faced by many OSB students. The testimony made clever use of the fact that most of Oregon's roughly 860 blind and visually impaired K through 12 students are educated in or near their home school districts.

The clever part was the assertion that OSB students with multiple disabilities would be educated at home if blindness were the only issue. According to this line of reasoning, multiply-disabled students were simply being warehoused at the school for the blind because it was easier than serving them properly in their home districts. Closure sponsors repeatedly asserted that "it wasn't about the money," insisting that they were motivated only by a passionate belief in mainstreaming blind and visually impaired students. This contention had the support of committee chair Gelser, who is the mother of a fully sighted child with other disabilities. Having the school's viability questioned by the mother of a special needs child proved potent indeed, even though the child in question has no vision limitations.

There were other surprises along the way when the closure bill was introduced in March. I personally spoke to about a third of the members of the Oregon House and Senate, and most of them said their minds were firmly set on closure. It had been my experience in reporting on the work of state legislators that they usually take some time to arrive at how they intend to vote. This time, however, most Oregon legislators already knew how they were going to vote. They didn't want to hear how hard it was to get a student enrolled in the school, no matter how badly the parents wanted this outcome; they didn't want to hear ways that student enrollment could be increased. They didn't want to hear that the school directly touched the lives of over 400 students a year. They didn't want to read a one-page summary of the school board's action plan for the next five years.

A number of Democratic legislators went so far as to tell me rather sheepishly that the party leadership would inflict a high price if they did not vote for closure. In fact, the House majority leader and the president of the Oregon Senate did show uncompromising resolve in pushing the bill through the two chambers, when many other bills got lost in the rush to make the adjournment deadline. One legislator told me privately that a lobbyist offered him sizable campaign contributions if he could help to deliver the OSB campus for a development project.

The "OSB is a convenient dumping ground for the multiply disabled" charge was one of two arguments which kept the school's supporters on the defensive throughout the debate. The second argument was that with only 32 full-time students and a budget of several million dollars annually, the cost per student was too high. These two arguments gave closure supporters an attractive choice. Idealists could claim that the issue wasn't money but the best approach for educating blind students. Number crunchers could say that closure of OSB was just a matter of efficiency.

Arguments in support of continuing the Oregon School for the Blind ran along these lines:

"Instead of closing, increase efficiency by raising the enrollment. Restore weekend dorm service and enrollment will go back up to fifty plus per year." The school's dormitories used to be open on weekends allowing students from distant counties to avoid an expensive weekly round-trip. Distant students stopped using the school when the weekend dorm service went away in 2003.

"Make it easier for students to enroll in the school." By law, the superintendent of a district had to sign a statement that the district could not meet the student's needs before the student could be allowed to enroll in the school for the blind.

"Keep the school in place as an option for students who aren't progressing well in the skills of blindness such as Braille, and mobility."

"Bring more students in for short term enrichment courses in such areas as daily living skills, Braille and career education."

"Thirty-five new students have enrolled in the school in the past five years. Closing the school gives such students no option, since their home districts are unable to serve them adequately."

"Improve the school's budget efficiency rating by including in the official count, both summer students and those who receive skill and vision assessments through the school's programs." This would acknowledge the fact that the school touches the lives of at least 400 students per year.

These arguments were largely dismissed. This was also true of nearly twenty hours of testimony before the House Education Committee--most of it from students, former students, parents, teachers, and members of the community. Their pleas to keep the school open because it helped in ways that local school districts couldn't or wouldn't, were considered inconsequential because they came from a small percentage of the state's blind and visually impaired K through 12 students.

Class Dismissed

The final version of the closure bill was relatively simple. In addition to closing the school and abolishing its board of directors, the bill provided around three million dollars for each of the next two years to buy transition services for 28 students who were enrolled at OSB as of March 2009. It left K through 12 education of blind and visually impaired Oregonians in the hands of 13 regional programs, which provide itinerant special education teachers and sell other special education services to the individual school districts.

The bill also called for preparations to sell the campus property and deposit the proceeds in a "rainy day" school fund administered by the Oregon Department of Education and unrelated to educational programs for blind students.

Before the sale is completed, state agencies and universities must be given a chance to claim the land if they can justify its use in their programs. Coincidentally, the President of the State Senate, Peter Courtney, serves as an assistant to the President of Western Oregon University. The university is widely rumored to be planning a school of nursing in conjunction with the Salem Hospital--which is located immediately adjacent to the former OSB campus.

Some of the land on and near the campus has a deed so complex that the Oregon Supreme Court may be asked to rule on it. While this complication may delay sale or transfer of some of the property, it did not postpone the legislation or its immediate consequences. In Late May and Early June, the closure bill easily passed the Oregon House and Senate by margins of better than two to one. In late June, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski signed it into law.

By September first, all the school's employees and usable equipment had vanished. As I write this, on the first day of October, most of the once bustling campus stands quiet and empty.

Homework Without Walls

In the fitful gusts of wind which blow a few early autumn leaves across the carefully cut grid of campus sidewalks, the final exam in this education story has only two questions: "What could have been done to prevent this?" and "How much does it really matter, anyway?"

The second question is easy. Without a statewide service, blind students in rural areas will be shortchanged, because their local districts lack resources to give them the basic tools such as Braille and career education. Many teachers who work with blind students in the regional programs candidly admit that there is not enough time in the day to fully develop needed communication and other special skills and pursue a full academic schedule at the same time. Without a school for the blind, where will students go to catch up when they fall behind in those specialized skills?

As for the first question, "What could have been done to prevent closure?" I have no simple answer. The set of conditions that developed here constituted something like a perfect storm. Legislators who had a use for the school's land, or who knew someone who did, had the good fortune to find a colleague with credible connections to the disabled rights community. Even if these connections didn't relate directly to blindness, they were close enough to get a pass with the average member of the public.

There is one factor which might have kept the Oregon School for the Blind safer from the wrecking ball of 2009. While many state schools supervise the outreach programs which provide teachers of the visually impaired and other K through 12 special services for visually impaired students, this is not the case in Oregon. Thirteen Education Service Districts or Regional Programs derive their income from providing some version of these services directly. Astonishingly, in recent years, the Oregon Department of Education did not require that parents be informed that the School for the Blind even existed. Thus, direct contact between parents of visually impaired students and the school was unlikely, unless the student's situation became seriously problematic or the child's parents were unusually resourceful or persistent.

Under these circumstances, it is not hard to see why enrollment of the school fell into the thirties, rendering it politically vulnerable. In other states, schools for the blind remain open, at least for the moment, though many are routinely challenged by lawmakers. Perhaps the last and best lesson from this experience can be taken from a Chinese warrior philosopher, Sun-tzu, from the year 400 B.C.: "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."


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