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Dueling Bills Aim to Allow the AZ School for the Deaf and Blind to Remain Open

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by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy, Arizona Mirror
March 29, 2023

Competing bills to allow the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind to remain open were both heard in the state Senate on Wednesday as parents, teachers and former students pushed for lawmakers to keep the school open. 

The school, which serves some 2,100 students at campuses in Phoenix and Tucson, was created the same year Arizona became a state, but its future has been in limbo, as a bill to allow it to operate for the next eight years was seemingly stalled in the Senate until Wednesday, when it was considered by the Senate Government Committee. Amid the uncertainty surrounding that bill, a strike-everything amendment was drafted last week to allow the school to remain open. That legislation was heard hours later by the Senate Education Committee. 

The original measure, House Bill 2456, unanimously cleared the state House of Representatives on Feb. 21, but remained inexplicably stalled in the Senate where the school and advocates said no one was telling them why

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The Government Committee hearing was originally scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, but was rescheduled late Tuesday to 8:30 a.m., raising the hackles of Democratic lawmakers who were concerned about members of the public being able to attend the meeting at a changed time on such short notice. Government Committee Chairman Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that the change was to accommodate for a large agenda and “speeches” made by Democratic members on the committee. 

The continuation bill was heard at around 9:30 a.m., but was amended to keep the school open for just two years.

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. In practice, the legislature typically extends agencies for eight years, because lawmakers are limited to four two-year terms.

The recent sunset audit of ASDB raised no serious red flags.

The competing strike-everything measure from Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, continues the school for five years. 

“I’m really puzzled as to the kind of questions you may have with our finances,” ASDB Superintendent Annette Reichman told the Government Committee through an interpreter. “We really want to be able to sit down and have a conversation with you.” 

Hoffman initially pushed back against Democratic senators who wanted Hoffman to explain his rationale behind the amendment and for committee members to discuss it prior to public comment. 

“I appreciate what you are attempting to do,” Hoffman quipped at Sen. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who said they should consider the amendment and discuss it prior to public testimony so those in attendance could speak to the amendment. 

Hoffman said that the amendment is about making sure the legislature has a “hands-on” approach to the school and added that he had initially planned to allow the school to operate for only one year before settling on a two-year reauthorization. Reichman told senators that Hoffman did not consult her about the amendment. 

If the bill is enacted in its current form, state auditors would begin work next year. Hoffman said he consulted with the state’s auditor general, who would conduct the review, and the office said they’d be prepared to do another audit within the new timeframe. 

Hoffman never identified any issues he had with the school, and neither did any other senators. 

Republicans chafed at criticism from Democrats. When Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, called Hoffman’s idea of annual reviews of ASDB “draconian,” Hoffman asked her to “walk back” the claim and Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson, said it was “over the top.” When Sundareshan asked Hoffman why the bill came to his committee, and not the Senate Education Committee, Hoffman dismissed her question. 

“I recognize that you’re new here,” Hoffman said to the freshman Democrat. Hoffman is in his second term as a state legislator.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bennett’s Education Committee held a far less contentious hearing, though it was still tense, in part because Wadsack, who supported the two-year amendment in the morning hearing, is the committee’s vice-chair. 

“I was not sure whether or not the continuation bill would be heard,” Bennett said, explaining his rationale for bringing the bill. Bennett also addressed how he came to his decision on five years instead of the eight recommended by the sunset review and previous committees. 

“As a compromise, a reasonable kind of place in the middle between eight and two, I picked five,” Bennett said, later adding that he didn’t believe a bill with eight years could receive enough Republican votes in the Senate, despite the original eight-year extension passing unanimously in the House. 

“I’m just curious why ASDB is being singled out?” Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, told the committee. “It seems like we are putting them through a great deal of anxiety”

Teachers, parents and former students spoke to senators in the hearings, many through an interpreter, asking them to move the bill forward but without the two-year amendment, saying that it would make the school’s job harder by creating busy work and distracting from their objectives. 

One parent of a student at the school called the bill as amended a “waste of time” and a “waste of government resources.” His testimony elicited applause from some members of the deaf, blind and deaf blind community in the audience, prompting Wadsack to fire back at the crowd. 

“There will be no clapping,” Wadsack said.

Brittany Buchanan, a board member for ASDB and parent to a deaf child, said that, without the school, she wasn’t sure she would ever know if her child understood that she loved her. The school helped her and her daughter learn to communicate with each other, Buchanan said.

Linda Amann, a teacher at the school who has sons who are deaf and spoke through an interpreter, said that the two-year amendment would harm the effectiveness of the school. 

“I’m proud to say that ASDB teachers have trained many successful students,” Amann said, adding that many have gone on to become doctors, lawyers, business managers and more. “You name it, it runs the gamut.” 

Reichman and others implored the Government Committee to drop the amendment from the bill, informing committee members that the school reviews its financials every two months with a finance committee. 

The school also received the backing of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who told the Education Committee that he’d prefer to see the school extended for eight years, but would settle for Bennett’s five-year bill. 

Horne, whose son-in-law is an administrator at the school, called the two-year system proposed by Hoffman “highly unusual” and said that it should be “discouraged.” 

Democratic members of the Government Committee moved to vote on the bill without the amendment, but the move failed with all Republican members of the committee voting against the original bill. The same thing happened in the Education Committee. 

“I’m voting yes under protest,” Sundareshen said when voting on the amended bill, which prompted Hoffman to ask if the committee’s rules attorney was present to see if voting under protest was “real.” 

“So, rhetorically then, I am voting yes under protest,” Sundareshen said. 

An emotional Sundareshen said that the two-year continuation will “throw wrenches in the gears” of the school. 

“The students, the community are here literally begging us not to do this,” an emotional Mendez said, adding that forcing the school to operate under the imminent threat of closure will “destabilize” the community. “I don’t want to do this, but I’m voting yes to move this forward…This is entirely insulting.” 

Hoffman said the amendment is in the best interest of the community, as well as the legislature’s constitutional duty. The state constitution says that lawmakers must enact provisions for students with audio or visual impairments.

“Allowing eight years to go by without legislative oversight is a failure of our jobs,” Hoffman said. 

The amended bill passed unanimously out of committee. 

“I’m a bit disappointed that they decided to approve the two-year amendment,” Academy Award-winner and Mesa resident Troy Kotsur, the first deaf man to win an Oscar, told the Arizona Mirror through an interpreter. “Auditing every two years is just a waste of money.” 

Kotsur, a graduate of an ASDB program, said that he is trying to stay positive but is worried about how the bill would impact the school, which is already underfunded. He said he is worried that the audits will distract from the school’s mission and, with only two schools in the state, he is worried about the impact. 

Many members of the deaf and deaf blind community go without language for years due to lack of access to American Sign Language in classrooms or other resources. Kotsur recalled a story of a friend who had “no language” until he was 12 when he was able to enroll in ASDB. 

“I am just incredibly disappointed in the way this legislative body has treated ASDB,” Marsh told the Education Committee, adding that it has given the “perception” that the legislature is attacking the school and the community. 

“This bill, in my opinion, is discrimination — all in the name of another bill that did not move forward,” Sen. Raquel Terán, D-Phoenix said, referencing a bill by Wadsack which would’ve broadened the scope of ASDB to allow for any child with disabilities to attend. Wadsack dropped the bill after outcry from the blind and blind deaf community and said she’d be pursuing an ad hoc committee. 

Wadsack, when explaining her yes vote during the Education Committee hearing, said that she would be bringing her “concerns” to Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, as she said Bennett’s bill was an attempt to “circumvent” the Government Committee. 

“Oh, I could say a lot, but I’ll just say aye,” Bennett said after Wadsack’s comments. 

Both bills passed their respective committees unanimously. House Bill 2456, which was amended by Hoffman, will head to the full Senate for a vote and the strike-everything amendment to House Bill 2291 by Bennett will also now head to the full Senate for a vote.

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Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: info@azmirror.com. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.