Saturday, June 17, 2006

Moving school for the visually impaired raises fears concerning safety issues!

A proposal to move the Oregon School for the Blind from the Salem campus it has occupied since 1895 is stirring safety objections from parents of visually impaired students.

They say the proposed relocation site in North Salem, the 52-acre campus of the Oregon School for the Deaf, is within a neighborhood that lacks adequate sidewalks for blind people.

Another worry is that blind students would have to cross train tracks to catch city buses.

And some parents fret about the presence of a halfway house with sex offenders, about a block away from the deaf-school campus.

A committee appointed by the Oregon Department of Education favors relocating the blind school to the deaf school campus.

The 2007 Legislature will decide the issue. If lawmakers approve the move, the state could sell the 7.5-acre campus southeast of downtown, nestled between Salem Hospital and Bush's Pasture Park.

The idea isn't new. Similar proposals surfaced several times during the 1990s. All died in the face of strong criticism from parents and other critics.

Parents oppose move

Today, in Salem, the Education Department will hold the first of three public hearings about proposed relocation of the blind school. Two more hearings are set for next week.

State schools superintendent Susan Castillo will evaluate public testimony before making any recommendations to the 2007 Legislature, which convenes in January, education officials said.
Joel Miller, a mental-health therapist whose daughter, Molly, 20, has attended the blind school for two years, said he was concerned, but not alarmed, about the halfway house.

"I worry a little bit about sex offenders being that close to where blind kids are because some of them are kind of vulnerable," he said.

More worrisome, Miller said, is the lack of sidewalks along streets near the deaf school campus and safety hazards that blind students might encounter trekking to city bus stops and other destinations.

"It's going to mean kids, in terms of their mobility and independence, are always going to need to be escorted places, which seems to me to defeat the purpose of any kind of independent-training situation," he said.

Proposed relocation of the blind school is roundly opposed by parents of the 36 students who attended the facility during the just-completed school year, Miller said.

"Every parent I've talked to who has kids at the School for the Blind and has seen the School for the Deaf has the same concerns," he said. "The blind school being where it is now, so close to downtown and the sidewalks and the city bus service, is so much better for the kids."

Jane Mulholland, director of the deaf school, confirmed that sidewalks are lacking in some areas near the campus.

"This is an older neighborhood, so there are some streets that have sidewalks and some that don't," she said.

Mulholland said the nearby halfway house hasn't posed any problems for deaf school students or staff. It has operated for 13 years and now is owned and managed by Stepping Out Ministries.
"Probably the individuals who are part of that program are better supervised and more closely monitored than you would find most places," she said. "We have never had a problem with them."
The Oregon Senate budget subcommittee on education last year directed the Education Department to examine moving the blind school to the deaf-school campus.

Potential cost savings prompted the budget directive, said Nancy Latini, assistant state school superintendent.

"Cost, absolutely," she said. "There's not any question that we shouldn't continue programs for these kids. The question is really about whether we should have two separate campuses."

Cost savings unknown

Potentially, budget savings might come through reduced maintenance costs at the blind school and by consolidating some services, such as food service and nursing, at a single campus, education officials said. No specific dollar amounts have been determined.

Supporters of the single-campus proposal want any cost savings, as well as proceeds from possible sale of the blind school campus, to be used to bolster statewide programs serving sensory-impaired young people.

"That's one of the recommendations," Latini said. "An example is mobility training. There's a limited amount of services, and the committee was saying, well, if we had some savings could that go into the programs for sensory-impaired kids statewide? That was something they really did want to see."

As it stands, the two specialized schools for deaf and blind students serve a fraction of young Oregonians who need services.

The School for the Deaf serves about 125 students.

The School for the Blind serves 35 to 60 students each school year. They come from throughout Oregon to learn Braille, vocational skills and independence.

"We're serving 36 of somewhere in excess of 850 visually impaired kids in the state," said Don Ouimet, director of the blind school. "So we're serving a pretty small percentage of those students. Typically, students come to us because their needs are beyond what their local programs are able to provide."

Miller said attending the school has worked wonders for his daughter. "She has developed all kinds of skills, skills that are going to help her live on her own," he said.

A prime factor to consider in the debate about the blind school's fate is the aging condition of the facilities there, officials said.

"The deaf school is a much, much, better campus than the blind school," Latini said. "That's a really old campus with not a lot of (upgrading) having been done for a long time."

Eight buildings, most dating to the 1950s, are scattered across the tree-lined campus of the blind school. Students live in a dormitory that opened in 1936.

"They're maintained very well," Ouimet said. "However, they're old buildings, and they have some of the issues of older buildings."

Ouimet said he thinks both schools could maintain separate programs and identities if they shared one campus.

"The methodologies for deaf students and students who are visually impaired are different," he said. "What I would envision would be separate instructional and residential programs and probably some combined services in areas like food service, nursing and maintenance."

Services won't be cut

The Education Department panel that favors moving the blind school also recommends that both schools continue to provide instructional and support services for their students.

"We're not into cutting teachers or cutting services for kids," Latini said.

Another proposal by the committee is that the Education Department contract with a public-education agency to run the two schools while retaining its oversight.

Combining the two schools at one location may save money, but it's not in the best interests of blind students, Miller said.

"I just have concerns that someone is thinking, well, you know, handicapped kids, put them all together and we'll save ourselves some money," he said.

Latini emphasized that no decisions have been made. Public comment and detailed reports delving into the issues are yet to be considered.

"That stuff seems so far down the road," she said, "and we want to make sure we bring the community along with us."


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