Arizona School for the Deaf & Blind extension bill passes, amid acrimony & hostility
After an acrimonious, and at times openly hostile debate, the Arizona Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would continue the existence of the Arizona School for the Blind and Deaf for the next four years.
If lawmakers don’t act, the school is slated to cease operations on July 1. Legislation to extend the school’s operations, House Bill 2456, was approved by a vote of 27-1, although many Democrats — and some Republicans — said they didn’t actually agree with the bill.
Under Arizona law, state agencies, like ASDB, face automatic termination at least once a decade. Lawmakers are required to evaluate the agency, and most are subjected to performance audits, and can reauthorize it for up to 10 years.
The ASDB, which was founded in 1912, serves approximately 2,100 students across the state, which makes up about 85% of the state’s deaf and deaf blind youth population. The Arizona Constitution requires the state to offer education to deaf and blind students.
The bill, as it was originally written, extended the school’s operations for eight years. That bill sailed through the House in January and February, passing through the Education Committee and the full House of Representative unanimously.
But when the bill went to the Senate, it was assigned to the Government Committee instead of the Education Committee, which amended it to decrease the school’s continuation to only two years.
The final bill that passed through the Senate on Thursday was the result of an amendment by Republican Sen. Ken Bennett of Prescott, who proposed a four-year continuation as a compromise.
Bennett clarified during the debate that he would have voted for the eight-year continuation if that were an option.
Democratic Sen. Juan Mendez, who voted against HB2456 out of protest, lambasted his GOP colleagues for not simply extending the school’s operation for eight years.
“Today, the public saw Senate Republican Leadership hand over the reins of their caucus to a radical minority — the Arizona Freedom Caucus,” Mendez said in a written statement after the vote. “Senator Jake Hoffman (LD15) and Senator Justine Wadsack (LD17) have led the charge to attack ASDB this entire session and their work came to fruition today through HB2456, ramming through a 4-year continuation of the school when a majority of Senators from both sides of the aisle agreed that the 8-year continuation was warranted and appropriate.”
Democratic Sen. Catherine Miranda accused Republicans of shortening the continuation period for the school in retribution after Wadsack’s Senate Bill 1402, which would have obligated the school to provide services to children with a broad range of disabilities, failed to make it past the Senate.
Democrats say that a shortened continuation period is already preventing teachers from signing contracts, as they’re worried that the school’s future is uncertain, and that finding teachers who are qualified to work at the school is already a challenge.
“It’s incredibly difficult to get high-quality teachers with the appropriate training,” said Democratic Sen. Eva Burch, of Mesa.
The school recruits from out of state to find people with the right training and skills, she said, and those people need a sense of job security if they’re going to uproot their lives to move to Arizona.
While Democrats argued that Republicans had given them no good reason not to continue the school for the next eight years, Republicans, and specifically Hoffman, countered that they did give a reason: They want to provide increased oversight for the school, following its performance audit last year.
Hoffman said the Senate aimed at “delivering the best possible education services, and ensuring that oversight is done is a furtherance of that mission.”
The sunset audit of ASDB raised no serious red flags, but found that it has “millions of dollars in capital improvement needs, including buildings that are vacant, underutilized, or that present health and safety concerns.”
The auditors recommended that the school “develop and implement a comprehensive, multi-year capital plan that assesses, identifies, and documents its capital needs.” Money to fund those plans would have to come from the GOP-controlled legislature.
During the debate, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle repeatedly accused one another of impugning each others’ motives, which is not allowed by the rules of the legislature. Each side also accused the other of discriminating against the deaf and blind community.
Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, along with several other Democrats, pointed out that they were only given notice that the Senate would vote on the school’s continuation hours before the vote took place, which didn’t allow time to make accommodations for those who attend and work at the school to watch and fully take in the debate.
The school’s superintendent, Annette Reichman, attended the Senate debate, but she is deaf and has vision limitations and was not provided with an interpreter. Hoffman pointed out that televisions were provided with closed captioning of the debate, but Democratic Sen. Christine Marsh, of Phoenix, countered that those weren’t sufficient for someone with poor eyesight.
Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, said that the short notice was because he promised he would put the bill up for a vote as soon as his caucus had come to an agreement, and Thursday was the legislature’s last day in session before it takes a weeklong break.
Hoffman refused to answer a question from Democratic Sen. Mitzi Epstein, asking if he had met with anyone from the school or the deaf and blind community before voting to approve the amendment that would decrease the continuation of the school to two years.
“We believe that an eight-year continuation is simply too long,” Hoffman said. “Look at how much has changed in education and the economy in the last eight years.”
Mendez, who introduced an amendment Thursday that would have upped the continuation budget back to eight years, pointed out that other state agencies had their existence approved for eight and 10 years.
“It’s beyond insulting that those with sensory differences need different oversight,” Mendez said.
Epstein asked what other motives, besides extra oversight, might be behind the proposed two year continuation, and Democrat Raquel Terán, of Phoenix, pointed out that even Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne backed an eight-year continuation.
Republican Sen. David Farnsworth said that when the legislature approves an agency for 10 years, it tends not to think about that agency for the next 10 years, so this would force the legislature itself to pay closer attention.
“This school is so important that we need to make sure that we help them do the best job they can,” Farnsworth said. “Our expectation is that this school will be around for a long, long time. Some of us feel a little more oversight is appropriate.”
But Farnsworth’s comments that those at the school are “so handicapped and we have all been blessed” raised the ire of some of his colleagues.
Marsh apologized to the blind and deaf community for Farnsworth’s statements, and Mendez accused Senate Republicans of ableism.
“Several Republican members stated they supported the full 8-year continuation; however, the Republican leadership lacked the backbone to stand up to the rogue members of the (freedom) caucus,” Mendez said in his statement. “Leadership instead kowtowed to the Freedom Caucus and Senator Wadsack. We hope that the House of Representatives can amend this disastrous attack on our deaf and blind community and bring an 8-year continuation forward for a final vote.”
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.