A state legislator is questioning whether administrators at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton are turning students away in order to ultimately bring about the school’s closure, a charge that’s vehemently denied by a top state official.
Representative Dawn Pettengill, a Democrat from Mount Auburn whose district includes Vinton, says two sets of parents have contacted her to say their children — one of whom had been a student at the school before — were not allowed to enroll for the coming year. “Both of these children were deemed legally blind and it’s a school for the legally blind and it just exacerbates the fact that I feel like they are trying to make the school — it’s being starved,” Pettengill says.
Legislators were told this past year that only 34 students were enrolled in the Vinton school. Pettengill predicts there’ll be a drop in enrollment because prospective students are being turned away. “If kids are being turned away, what are they going to say to legislators next year: ‘there’s only 25 kids there’? And then the following year: ‘there’s only 15 there’ — do you see what I”m saying?” Pettengill asks.
But Gary Steinke, executive secretary of the Board of Regents — the state board that governs the Vinton school, says there’s no secret plan to shut the school down. “Earlier this year during the legislative session when the rumors were that the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School was going to be closed by Regents we sent a letter to every member of the General Assembly…saying that we have very good news and the good news was that the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School would not close and would not merge with anybody else,” Steinke says.
Pettengill’s also is calling for an investigation of recent staffing cutbacks at the school because she says they were never approved by the Board of Regents. “I want them to let people know…what people can expect,” Pettengill says. Someone sent Pettengill a memo indicating eight staff members will be let go and three people approached her at the Benton County Fair to say they’d been given pink slips.
Pettengill maintains those job reductions must be approved by the Board of Regents, but Steinke says the board has never been involved in hiring or firing custodians, maintenance workers and dormitory supervisors. “Those positions are not required to be approved by the Regents,” Steinke says. “They are never approved by the Regents in any of the universities or the special schools.” The Board of Regents oversees operations at Iowa, Iowa State and UNI in addition to the state’s “special schools” in Vinton for the blind and in Council Bluffs for the deaf.
Pettengill also charges that the Board of Regents has failed to follow a new law which requires the filing of reports to a legislative committee on actions taken at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. Steinke disputes that, too. He says the only report required by law was delivered to the appropriate legislative committee last Friday.