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Talk of move raises alarm at TSD

Talk of move raises alarm at Texas School for the Deaf

February 21, 2015

By Julie Chang – American-Statesman Staff

“A good number of deaf people, including myself, have moved to Austin specifically to attend our children at TSD, and many of us changed jobs, sold our homes, and left behind our relatives in order to move to Austin,” said Westfall, who is also deaf. “To suggest that TSD can be moved somewhere else reeks of disrespect for deaf people.”

At the same time, parents and school administrators emphasize that they don’t believe the campus is likely to be moved. After all, it has withstood such talk before and remains in the same spot it has been for 159 years.

Over that time, the school has become a hub of services for the 28,000 deaf people who live in Travis County — and for the surrounding community. The Austin High School swim team, for example, practices in the campus’ pool. The School for the Deaf has partnerships with nearby businesses. Many neighbors walk and jog on the school’s track. Those community ties would dissolve if it were moved from the heart of South Austin, supporters say.

“When you look at the national status of locations of schools for the deaf, most of them are in very remote areas and that goes back to the history of isolation of state schools … to keep those individuals invisible,” said Carrie Lou Garberoglio, a second-generation alumna of the school. “This school is really unique and contributes a lot to the feelings of welcoming and being part of the community.”

Wear and tear

During a budget hearing last week, state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, incited a public backlash when he raised the possibility of selling or downsizing the school to help pay for $36 million in maintenance needs and upgrades to the school’s aging buildings identified by the Texas Facilities Commission, which took over day-to-day upkeep of the campus in 2013.

On Friday, during a similar budget hearing, House budget writers spoke not a word about a sale — even as one parent pleaded with them to avoid it — but instead praised the school for everything it does for disabled Texans.

In her testimony to the House Appropriations subcommittee Friday, Texas School for the Deaf Superintendent Claire Bugen emphasized the importance of the campus location, saying it has “become sort of a landmark in Austin.”

However, while Bugen and members of the deaf community said they were surprised when Whitmire brought up the sale, they also admit it is not the first time it has come up. And Bugen even said they are willing to discuss and research selling off parts of the campus, if necessary, sometime in the future to raise the millions needed to fix the school’s infrastructure. But not now.

The oldest buildings on the campus date back to the 1920s — a gym and museum — and some students live in dorms built as early as the 1950s. The newest buildings were built in three phases between 1993 and 2004.

A recent facilities commission report has said that underground utility infrastructure on the campus is at the point of failure, dorms need to be rebuilt, and major mechanical and electrical systems need to be replaced. It noted that some deficiencies were caused by a “historical lack of repairs and preventative maintenance.”

Texas House and Senate first-draft budgets boost the school’s funding by about $1.5 million in the next two-year budget cycle, bringing its 2016-17 general revenue funding to about $36.4 million. The current budget appropriates only $4.5 million in deferred maintenance for the school.

The buildings and utility systems across the campus have undergone normal wear and tear, Bugen said. But the maintenance issues aren’t as dire as media reports have made it seem, she said, referring to press coverage of legislators who cited issues with “rodents, bats, bedbugs” and other health and safety concerns.

“Do we have facilities needs? Of course. But are our children unsafe? Absolutely not,” she said.

A community resource

The School for the Deaf is the longest continuously operating school in Texas. It has 542 students, ranging from 18 months to 22 years old, and about half of them live on campus Sunday through Friday. Enrollment has grown 18 percent over the last 10 years.

As in mainstream schools, students learn under a curriculum set by the Texas Education Agency and take state-mandated tests every year. The numbers of students per teacher are smaller, too — elementary classes, for example, have up to two teachers and an aide.

Sports and performing arts keep students occupied after school, and students can learn to cook and fix computers, for example, through career and technology programs. During an after-school Zumba class last week, a group of elementary students were sliding and shuffling on a cafeteria stage to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.”

More than 7,000 others in communities across the state use the school’s resource center every year, providing such services as sign language instruction, audiology and annual family events.

Gabriel Veit, a sophomore, moved with his family to Austin four years ago from Washington, D.C., because the deaf school he attended was more than an hour away from his home. Veit, who recently discovered a love for robotics, said he hopes next year to start taking college courses at Austin Community College — a 10-minute commute from the school.

More than a quarter of School for the Deaf students have three or more disabilities.

Jon Bergeron and his wife moved from Bryan to Austin nine months ago so that their adopted son, who has a degenerative neurological condition, could attend the special needs classes. The move ensured that his education would take into account both his intellectual and hearing disabilities.

“There’s nothing like it within a thousand miles,” Bergeron said.

Location, location, location

It is no coincidence that Travis County Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is located a little more than a mile away from the school, longtime deaf residents say. Communication Services for the Deaf, a private nonprofit that offers translating technology and services, moved its multimillion-dollar operation to downtown Austin about a year ago.

Proximity to the Capitol and Austin City Hall makes it easier for school officials to lobby for services for the deaf community.

Bus stops at the campus doorsteps help students get to events during Austin City Limits and South by Southwest — opportunities that help keep them integrated in the community, deaf parents say. Students have held reading circles at Jo’s coffee and have taken field trips to Big Top Candy Shop. Since opening its doors, Hopdoddy Burger Bar on South Congress has hired half a dozen employees who know sign language and regularly serve deaf customers, said Tony Pollock, the restaurant’s director of operations.

For the past seven years, Don Twomey of Twomey Auto Works, across South Congress Avenue from the campus, has volunteered to teach auto repair classes every week. Students can intern at his shop, and Twomey hired a former student.

“In a way, there are a lot of interwoven stories in our community when you look at the economic side and spirit of the community and relationships with the people here,” said Bobbie Beth Scoggins, an alumna.

Franna Camenisch, who graduated from the school in 1965, said she wasn’t surprised by suggestions to move the school. Officials floated the idea of selling the South Congress location in the mid-1980s to pay for a larger location.

At that time, the school was looking to merge the south campus with its east campus off of Airport Boulevard. People protested the suggestion, and lawmakers in 1989 agreed to sell the east campus, which remained operational for several years afterward as the south campus underwent construction.

Camenisch said moving would put the history of the school and former students’ memories at risk. Camenisch heads the school’s on-campus museum, and right outside its doors is a sprawling oak tree. She loves the tree for the story it leaves behind — decades ago, students in the Future Farmers of America would hang sheep from the branches to skin them. Wires are still on one of the branches.

“I do not want to cut that tree down,” she said. “This is another story that the kids can be able to look at.”


1856: The Sixth Texas Legislature establishes the Texas Deaf and Dumb Asylum. It was appropriated $10,000 for the biennium. The school’s budget in fiscal 2014 was $27.7 million.

1881-1888: The school acquired 26 lots east of the school, bringing the size of its grounds to 64 acres. The campus has grown slightly since.

1923: The school is the second-largest school for the deaf in the country. Between 1923 and 1924, 488 students were enrolled at the school. Deaf-blind students were transferred to the blind school a decade later.

1949: The school’s name is changed to the Texas School for the Deaf. For years, the deaf community had pushed against being categorized as dumb.

1965: The school integrates with the Texas Blind, Deaf, and Orphan School, which was established for black children. The school eventually became the East Campus of the Texas School for the Deaf, which had a parent-infant program, preschool, elementary school and the multihandicapped program.

1989: The Legislature approves selling the school’s east campus at 601 Airport Blvd. The campus remained operational for several years after that while the South Congress campus underwent major construction.

1993: The school starts undergoing major construction that would wrap up in 2004. Those buildings are still being used.

2006: The school celebrates its 150-year anniversary and a historic landmark marker is placed at the entrance to the campus on South Congress Avenue.

Source: Texas School for the Deaf, Texas Historical Commission and American-Statesman archives



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