June 2, 2023 12:56 am

Local News

Bill Extending AZ School for the Deaf and Blind Operations for Four Years Goes to Hobbs

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by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy, Arizona Mirror

The Arizona House of Representatives approved a bill Wednesday that will extend operations of the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind for four years, the culmination of an unexpected battle over the fate of the school in the state Senate. 

As part of the periodic sunset process for state agencies, lawmakers were tasked with evaluating the school and determining how long its operations should continue before the next review. State law limits extensions to 10 years, but lawmakers have historically extended state agencies for eight years at a time — a figure that coincides with legislative term limits.

The continuation for ASDB was no different, with the House unanimously approving House Bill 2456 in February to extend the school’s operations for eight years. But the bill stagnated in the Senate, where GOP leaders refused to consider it, and proponents were given no explanation why.

Eventually, Republican senators took up the legislation, but the Senate Government Committee amended it to limit the extension to just two years, citing a nebulous need for more oversight of the school’s operations. 

When the bill was debated by the full Senate, a floor amendment increased the extension to four years. The House on Wednesday approved that version of the bill, and it will now be sent to Gov. Katie Hobbs, who can sign it into law or veto it.

ASDB, which was founded in 1912, the same year Arizona became a state, 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.

“It seems that everything went off the rails in the Senate,” Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, said Wednesday as the House voted on the measure. 

Pawlik and other Democratic lawmakers voted for the four-year extension, but voiced their displeasure, with many adding that they aim to come back to address the issue in the next legislative session to further extend the school’s operations. 

Rep. Laura Terech, D-Scottsdale, decried the lack of American Sign Language interpreters present during debates the Senate and House had on the bill, adding that she is committed to running legislation next session to increase the school’s continuation to eight years. 

Republican lawmakers have argued that the change in the continuation is to provide better oversight of the school, as the state constitution says that lawmakers must enact provisions for students with audio or visual impairments.

Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, said that the new version of the bill the House voted on Wednesday better served the legislature’s aims of acting as oversight for a vulnerable population that needed to be “protected.” 

Kolodin’s comments did not sit well with Democratic members who claimed they were rooted in protectionism and ableism

Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, pointed out that many who work and volunteer at the school are members of the deaf and blind communities, but who said they never were able to get meetings with lawmakers. 

“It is ableist that we did this in the first place,” Salman said. 

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.

“I’m glad to hear some of the commentary that we have heard about this bill,” Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, said Cook, who helped pass legislation to get funds for the school in the past, said he wanted to see the school continue for eight years, like the House approved back in February. 

“I’m going to vote for this bill here, but I’m not happy, I don’t like it,” Cook said, adding that he thinks that the House should use an eight-year continuation for ASDB as “leverage” against the Senate next year.

This story was written by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy, a reporter at the Arizona Mirror, where this story first appeared.

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