Citing larger problems, Tomblin vetoes funds for Schools for Deaf and Blind

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Citing larger problems, Tomblin vetoes funds for Schools for Deaf and Blind
 By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer, Charleston Gazette
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed a bill last week — passed nearly unanimously by both houses of the Legislature — that would have made the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind eligible for more money to fix extensive issues with its facilities.

The governor’s veto of House Bill 2160 follows his line-item veto of $1.5 million in one-time funding for the schools from a widely supported appropriations bill. Architects have said the schools need more than $82 million worth of work.

“Vetoing the line item out of the first one, it was a slap in the face,” said Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire and lead sponsor of 2160. “The second one was two slaps in the face . . . . It’s unbelievable.”

Rowan, whose grandson attends the schools, said the appropriations money would have helped start a project to renovate a campus building for middle and high school deaf students to allow elementary deaf students to move into the same facility — allowing for shared utilities and technology.

HB2160 would have allowed the schools to apply for grants under the state School Building Authority’s “needs” fund. Currently, the Romney schools are allowed to apply for funds only from the SBA’s “major improvement program.” SBA Executive Director David Sneed said the “needs” fund is about 10 times larger than the fund the schools are limited to.

The major improvement fund usually gives out about $5 million a year to education agencies that serve multiple counties — like the schools, which Rowan said provide services for more than 700 students across the state, including more than 100 who live on the Romney campus. However, legislators recently reduced that amount to $3 million, and Sneed said the SBA might now wait until 2017 to give out major improvement grants again.

The needs fund provides money to the state’s 55 county school districts, but the Schools for the Deaf and the Blind aren’t part of the district in Hampshire County, where they’re located. Instead, they’re overseen directly by the state school board.

Sneed has said counties request $150 million to $200 million in project funding each year from the SBA — well above the amount available even without cuts. Tomblin wrote in his veto message that HB2160 could further limit funds for the 55 school districts.

“This bill is also problematic because we do not yet have a firm understanding of what the Schools for the Deaf and Blind’s needs are, to become financially viable well into the future,” Tomblin wrote. “Accordingly, I have asked the State Board of Education — which controls, supervises and manages the schools — to commission an independent, objective assessment of their needs, both facilities and curriculum-related.

“Outside experts should also analyze the Schools’ continuing viability. Without such assessment, there is the potential the state could spend limited resources unwisely.”

However, state school board member Bill White said the schools already have been “studied to death,” pointing to “internal” reports.

“It’s not like we were shooting in the dark,” White said, “and I think those studies that have been made already weren’t given a fair chance by the Governor’s Office.”

He said the veto “blindsided” him, adding that the treatment of the schools — where yellow tape prevents students from entering some unsafe campus buildings — amounts to an unconstitutionally unequal treatment of the students there, compared to other West Virginia children.

“The deaf and the blind, people don’t see them, and so they are invisible,” White said, “and the governor has made them even more invisible, and that annoys me.”

White said Tomblin would argue that past studies weren’t independent. Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said, to his understanding, they weren’t.

“We appreciate their mission,” Stadelman said, “but they have to have a long-term plan for sustainability.”

Scott Raines, the SBA’s architectural services director, echoed the governor’s wish for more information.

Raines said he’d like to see a comprehensive feasibility study that examines whether the schools are offering the best instruction for students before the SBA grants more money.

He said he doesn’t want to put a “Band-Aid on a broken leg” by only addressing a piece of a much larger problem, or funding the repair of buildings that might later be emptied as plans change. He said the buildings are in “horrible shape,” citing an abandoned structure where he’s heard one can push a screwdriver, by hand, through the mortar on the outside of the wall into the building itself.

In a statement, state school board staff members said they’ve been aware of Tomblin’s concerns about the schools. They said they recently were made aware of the “scope of his request and the method to carry it out via the veto language.”

School board attorney Mary Catherine Funk said Friday that she’d only seen the veto message Thursday night and would analyze it in the next few days.

She said staff members will look at any historical studies, including one that concluded the schools should remain in Romney, where they’ve been since 1870. Board staff will meet with the representatives for the deaf and blind schools and the governor, to see what steps should be taken next.

The state school board voted in October 2013 to keep the deaf and blind schools in Romney, following a report by ZMM Architects & Engineers that concluded it would cost nearly $100 million to move the schools elsewhere. ZMM developed the master plan for the campus.

Last April, the schools requested more than $7 million from the needs fund, but the SBA didn’t award it. Funk said that, after that point, there was some kind of legal review that concluded the schools weren’t even eligible for funding from the needs fund.

Raines also said at the time that the campus was in “deplorable, deplorable condition,” but he argued that the requested funding would solve only a “small portion of the overall needs of the facility.”

In December 2014, the schools asked for about $466,000 from the major improvement fund, to install a new roof and the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system in a 42-year-old building. The SBA staff recommended giving funds to other entities, and the SBA board agreed to give the schools nothing. The schools had received SBA major improvement funding in the past.

Raines noted that he’s not part of the SBA board that ultimately decides whether to give money or not, but he said staff members won’t recommend funding until they can believe they’re “doing something that furthers the needs that are there.”

“It’s really a difficult situation up there,” he said. “You feel for the kids up there, and you feel that something has to be done at this facility, but there has to be something put together that says here’s what needs to take place.”