by Thomas P. Healy
A recommendation from a task force hastily convened by the Indiana General Assembly could result in closing both the Indiana School for the Deaf (ISD) and the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ISBVI) and relocating to a third location “no more than 10 miles beyond the Interstate 465 highway.”
The 2019 Interim Report [PDF] calling for “continuing to explore the possibility and benefits of co-locating” the two schools was approved Nov. 25 after a single hearing Nov. 20, 2019.
The Indiana General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1443 [PDF] during the 2019 session and Governor Eric Holcomb signed it in April. The bill established the task force and advisory committee and required them to “evaluate and make recommendations to the budget committee relating to the operation of the physical plants of the Indiana School for the Deaf and the Indiana School for the Blind [and] Visually Impaired.” The law stipulated that the task force make recommendations to the budget committee by Dec. 1, 2019.
The law required Governor Holcomb to appoint members to the task force as well as to an advisory committee that included members of the hearing impaired and visually impaired communities. Those appointments took place in early November. One advisory committee member confirmed that dates and times for the two meetings were emailed to committee members Nov. 14—less than a week before the first meeting.
At the inaugural meeting of the Task Force on Nov. 20, state Sen. Liz Brown of Fort Wayne, who represents Indiana’s 15th district, said she had been recently appointed to chair the task force and apologized for the timing of the meetings. “Some of the timing of this task force has caused some consternation,” she said. “Because of circumstances beyond our control we were not able to schedule before now.”
Part of the holdup was attributed to a delay until August in allocating funds to hire a firm to conduct a study of the physical plants. Contracts were signed in mid-September. When the task force met Nov. 20, members were provided a summary of the findings since the full study had not been completed. An executive summary was provided to members Nov. 22. At the Nov. 25 meeting, Sen. Brown noted that the final report for each location would run in excess of 400 pages and would be completed at a later date.
INSUFFICIENT TIME TO REVIEW
Because the task force had to make its recommendations to the State Budget Committee no later than Dec. 1, many members expressed concern that there was insufficient time to review yet-to-be-completed documents. Greg Gantt, an ISD alum and Holcomb appointee to the task force, said that while not opposed to reviewing all options he had issues with the timeline for the two meetings. “HEA 1443 was passed last spring and I literally received an email two weeks ago that the meeting would happen the following Wednesday,” he said. He observed that he was struggling with making a decision about the future of the two schools based on one three-hour session. “We do not have access to the over 400-page report,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to represent the deaf community and I cannot in good conscience support this process.”
At the Nov. 20 hearing, Matt Kent, chief financial officer for the Indiana Department of Administration (IDOA), which manages the two state facilities, reported to the task force that the agency had hired American Structurepoint to conduct the capital needs assessment. This involved multiple site visits to review the current condition of the properties and conduct an analysis of future capital improvements, including estimated costs.
He presented an excerpt of American Stucturepoint’s incomplete report that suggested both facilities would require an estimated $100 million of investment over the next 20 years to bring them up to date, such as to achieve Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and to replace aging HVAC equipment. [PDF]
“I know it seems like we’re rushing this. We’re not rushing this,” Sen. Brown told task force members Nov. 20. “When you look at current capital appropriations, we’re looking at a $100 million spend over the next 20 years between the two physical plants.” She said the task force’s work was relatively simple. “We’re trying to evaluate the physical assets we have and the merits of trying to sustain those current physical assets.”
ISD sits within Sen. Greg Taylor’s House District 33. At the Nov. 20 hearing, he expressed his dismay that neither he nor Rep. Greg Porter, whose House District 96 includes the ISD campus, were appointed to the task force. “I am not a member of this task force and I am not happy about it. This committee is devoid of anyone who represents the area under discussion,” he said. Taylor noted that when ISD parents and students have difficulty accessing the campus off of 42nd Street during the Indiana State Fair, “I get those calls and am expected to resolve these issues.”
In an interview after the hearing, Rep. Porter shared Sen. Taylor’s frustration at not being appointed to serve on the task force: “We just want to make sure this process is moving in a transparent way.” Porter said the state could fund both locations without compromising the General Assembly’s fiscal responsibilities. “You can manufacture failure through underfunding over the years,” he said. “The $100 million isn’t much money in the scheme of things. We’ve got a $2.4 billion surplus. Besides, you’re not going to make $20 million to $50 million off the sale of those properties. This is a real estate play for three properties: the Deaf School, the Blind School, and whatever real estate the combined facility lands on,” he added.
Representing the Indiana Association of the Deaf, Holly Elkins testified during the public comment portion of the Nov. 20 session to urge the task force to reject combining the two schools into one campus. “A school is a lot more than bricks and mortar,” she said. Elkins said it is crucial that ISD and ISBVI remain in place because the two schools have different educational purposes and each community has unique educational requirements. “Blind students’ needs are considerably different from the needs of deaf students. To accommodate for those needs in one location is difficult to do,” she said. Elkins noted that between public and private schools, most Indiana residents have multiple options for their children. “The choices you have to send your children to a school are phenomenal. However, a deaf school is the best fit for a child who is deaf. And those families who have blind students have that opportunity to send their children to the blind school.” If the goal is to see academic progress in students, Elkins asserted, “That will become challenging if we combine these two schools.”
Task force member James Michaels serves as vice chair of the ISBVI school board. He testified that he has worked at both the School for the Deaf and the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which has given him insight into the two different communities. “I think it would be counterproductive to have blind and deaf students educated in the same location,” he said.
ISBVI superintendent James Durst said that a 2001 study looked at combining the two campuses and estimated it would cost $50 million to move ISD to his campus or $35 million to move ISBVI to ISD’s campus. As for the current discussion of combining campuses, he said it boils down to “Do we want to pay now or pay later? Do we want to invest $100 million now over the next 20 years or take those resources and do something different?”
While welcoming the discussion for improving opportunities for students at both facilities, Durst observed, “Realistically, I don’t see it as a way of increasing our operating budgets to expand our programs. It’s not like if we don’t spend our capital dollars we have them as operating dollars to create new programming.”
Meanwhile, current capital projects continue. During his presentation, ISD superintendent and CEO David Geeslin confirmed that Simpson Hall, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, will be razed in summer 2020 at an estimated cost of $1.4 million. “It has to go,” he said. “We want it gone.”
Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, said Simpson Hall “could have been saved. But when the owner has an intractable point of view even the best proposals fall flat.” He said Indiana Landmarks was able to prevent an earlier demolition order and funded a study of the ISD campus in 2017 to examine whether adaptive reuse of Simpson Hall would be an impediment to continued operations of the school. A task force including members of the ISD board as well as from the Indiana State Fair and IDOA was assembled, and after six months forwarded its study recommendations to the ISD board. [PDF] The board voted its approval of the Indiana Landmarks study in November 2017. Other than moving the 42nd Street campus access gate, however, no further action was taken. “We gave it our all,” Marsh said. “Hopefully Willard Hall will not suffer the same fate as Simpson Hall.”
At the Nov. 25 session, Sen. Brown assured task force members that they would continue to meet in 2020 to discuss and work on the decision outlined in the 2019 Interim Report. After the session the interim report was sent to the State Budget Committee which acknowledged receipt at its December 20 meeting. Unless legislation is passed during the 2020 Session, the interim report’s recommendations will go forward.