Texas schools warn of litigation under budget cuts

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Associated Press

Posted on February 8, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 9 at 2:05 AM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas school districts could see an increase in lawsuits if special needs children are refused admission to the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the School for the Deaf because of cuts in the proposed state budget, superintendents told senators Monday.

Senators on the finance committee heard from superintendents of both schools, who said they are required under federal law to enroll students who cannot be adequately served by their local school districts.

Bill Daugherty, superintendent for the School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, said if forced to operate with less money as proposed under the state Senate's draft budget, the school won't be able to enroll new students who have a legal right to a "free, appropriate education" under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

He warned that parents of blind children have not hesitated in the past to sue if their children are not provided adequate services, and that restoring the funding that the Senate bill takes away would decrease the likelihood of litigation.

The school has no mechanism to cap enrollment, instead placing students on a wait list until a spot becomes available. Daugherty said students currently have to wait about one month, but that under Senate Bill 1 the wait list would effectively bar enrollment.

The School for the Deaf, which has a legal obligation to accept students referred by local school districts for admission, faces similar obstacles.

With more than 500 students and enrollment steadily increasing, the school can't sustain the 10 percent cut lawmakers are proposing without cutting personnel and making drastic changes in services, superintendent Claire Bugen said.

Students remain in local school districts if they are refused admission.

The schools for the blind and deaf serve some of the most complex learners in the state, and a majority of the students have more than one disability. Bugen said only 30 percent of their students have a single disability, she said.

The School for the Blind and Visually Impaired is requesting 15 more teachers and staff, and had hoped for an additional $1.4 million to cover the cost of providing an education for 12 to 16 new students. Daugherty said the school is also seeking funds to update technology.

The School for the Deaf wants 18 new teachers and staff. Bugen said the proposed cuts would force the school to lose an overnight physician, leaving sick students to be administered by a dorm parent not a medical expert.

In the face of a $27 billion budget shortfall, Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, said "it may be appropriate in some cases to charge tuition."

Bugen said that is not allowed under federal law.

"I don't have a mechanism to do that. I think we're going to cross into federal issues under IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) when you start talking about charging parents," she said.

In public schools, deaf students often can't find interpreters or the specialized education necessary, leaving many otherwise capable students unable to function.

Neil Leach, the father of a daughter who was born deaf, said his daughter's experiences in mainstream public school were "unbelievable." She was required to go to music class, went days without having an interpreter and wasn't exposed to visual learning, he said.

Since enrolling at the School for the Deaf, her reading has jumped nearly three grade levels and she has a teacher who is fluent in American Sign Language.

"Has anyone up here had a deaf child who needs special education?" he asked the senators. "It's a completely different education. To charge tuition would be ridiculous."

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