Arizona school teaches thousands of deaf, blind students yearly. Why its future is in limbo

The Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind has educated students with auditory and visual issues since Arizona became a state in 1912.
Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

The Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind has educated students with auditory and visual issues since Arizona became a state in 1912. But students, parents and supporters of the school fear that all could change dramatically, or even end, in the next few months.

House Bill 2456 would continue the school for another eight years. It passed the House of Representatives in February on a unanimous vote with no controversy.

But as a key deadline nears, the bill has not yet had a Senate hearing. Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said the bill would get heard in his Government Committee on March 29, but advocates are suspicious. If the bill does not pass, the school would have to close as of July 1.

The advocates are wary the holdup might have another aim: requiring the school to open its doors to students of all types of disabilities, not just those with auditory and visual issues. That was the aim of a separate bill that was proposed but later withdrawn by Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson.

“We suspect there’s some gamesmanship behind the scenes," said Judy Robbins, who taught sign language at the school's Phoenix branch, as well as in the Mesa public schools.

She and other advocates have asked lawmakers to schedule the bill for a hearing, without any last-minute amendments, but have received no response.

Late Thursday, Sen. Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, added a strike-everything amendment to an education-related bill, HB 2291, to continue the school through June 2031. It will be heard in his Senate Education Committee Wednesday, hours after Hoffman's committee considers the school's extension in HB 2456.

Bennett did not immediately return a query about why he saw the need for a bill that does the same thing as HB 2456.

The lack of response from earlier pleas to lawmakers is frustrating, said Pv Jantz, a former member of the school’s board. It has fueled suspicions that there's a larger agenda at play than simply continuing the school for another eight years, he said.

“You’ve got Senate Republicans playing with the lives of children who need special services," said Jantz, who talked to The Arizona Republic using an assisted communication device. "They’re not losing sleep over it.”

Amy Porterfield, who serves on the board of the Arizona chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, pointed to the Wadsack bill and the delay on the bill to keep the school going and wondered if there is a plan to merge them.

Hoffman won't say. But Senate President Warren Petersen said the Senate has heard some "alarming things" about the school. He said those issues, which he suggested might relate to finances, will get explored at the hearing.

"Need to make sure the money is being spent wisely and benefitting the kids," Petersen told The Republic in a text message.

School as old as Arizona, serves thousands

The school serves about 2,200 students between its Tucson residential campus, its day school in Phoenix and through the services it provides to students in Arizona's other public schools. It has existed since the state's founding in 1912, with the state Constitution specifically requiring laws to "provide for the education and care of pupils who are hearing and vision impaired."

The school received a fairly clean audit last year as part of the regular "sunset review" that is done to determine whether a state agency should continue. A committee of both House and Senate members in January unanimously recommended the renewal of the school for another eight years.

But after Wadsack introduced Senate Bill 1402 to expand the school's mission, the seemingly straightforward act of continuing the school grew complicated.

Should the school have a broader reach?

Wadsack argues the school's Tucson campus is vastly underused and could easily accommodate expansion to include students who have other disabilities.

“I think we can become the benchmark for special needs students in America," she said at a Feb. 15 hearing.

She rejected complaints from speakers who said the bill would dilute the school's curriculum, which is specialized to teach Braille and sign language. Robbins noted SB 1402 could block blind and deaf students from enrolling, especially at its residential campus in Tucson, which has limited capacity.

Earlier this month, worried parents, students and advocates of the school, with interpreters in tow, crowded into the Senate gallery for an anticipated Senate vote on the bill. Instead, Wadsack announced she was not pursuing the bill and would convene an ad hoc committee to explore school issues.

Meanwhile, the bill to give the school another eight years was going nowhere.

Will the Legislature force the school to close?

The delay drew the attention of Troy Kotsur, an Academy Award-winning actor from Mesa who attended the School for the Deaf and Blind. In a YouTube video, he addressed lawmakers, and Hoffman in particular, asking them to pass the bill.

"Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind is the most valuable and the only statewide academic program specializing in education and services for the deaf (and) blind in Arizona," Kotsur signed, using American Sign Language, a skill he said he obtained at the school.

Hoffman said he was working with the bill's sponsor, Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, but would not elaborate. Pingerelli deferred comments to Hoffman, but said the bill needs to pass.

The upcoming hearing may surface some of the concerns. But no one is taking the hearing for granted and fears persist that the Legislature may curtail the school's lifeline — or abolish it altogether.

“It seems outrageous that would happen," Porterfield said of the school closing. "It's so irregular."

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com or at 602-228-7566 and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.

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