PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said Tuesday night she would ask lawmakers to fund a program for the blind and visually impaired that is housed at Rhode Island College, after parents and students spoke out about the impending layoffs of all the teachers there.
Infante-Green said she and RIC President Frank Sanchez would be seeking state funding for the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities.
“We are going to be talking to the legislature about creating a line item for Sherlock,” Infante-Green said. “The last thing we want is for the Sherlock Center not to exist.”
She made the comments at a virtual meeting of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, after dozens of parents and some blind students spoke out during the meeting’s public comment period. They slammed RIDE for pulling a federal grant from Sherlock and putting the services for the blind and visually impaired out to bid.
While the topic was not actually on the agenda, RIDE officials came prepared with their lawyer to explain to the council why procurement laws require the program to be competitively bid.
Anthony Cottone, chief legal counsel for RIDE, said because the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts provides services to certain Rhode Island school districts that don’t use Sherlock, RIDE can no longer have a “sole-source” agreement to house the entire Rhode Island Vision Education and Services Program (RIVESP) at Sherlock.
The Education Department put out a request for proposals for what’s called a Master Price Agreement in late March. Qualified bidders who submit by April 20 will be put on a master vendor list for districts to contract with for teachers for the visually impaired (TVIs) and orientation & mobility specialists (O&Ms).
While the Perkins School has said it plans to bid, it seems unlikely Sherlock would be able to do so without additional funds. The RIC program currently receives a $684,000 federal grant through RIDE, which is being pulled to pay for the new multi-service model.
Under the new model, school districts would be reimbursed with that grant for the costs to hire TVIs and O&Ms, either contracting from the master price list or hiring their own staff.
Sherlock therefore sent layoff notices to its 13 TVIs and O&Ms last month, citing their contract’s expiration on June 30.
“How could you?” Sarah Shaffer, a parent whose son Theo is blind, asked at Tuesday night’s meeting. “You are the decision-makers who thought it was okay to take the incredibly successful vision and O&M services for my son and put them out to bid … you are depriving us of our choice to continue the relationship that saved my family’s lives.”
Other parents and students echoed the sentiment that the program at Sherlock has been successful because of the high-quality teachers.
“You are jeopardizing my education and my future for the lure of saving a buck,” said Jackson Troxell, a sophomore at Johnston Senior High School.
A line item in the state budget could potentially solve the problem. The state legislature used to directly fund the RIVESP program, which was set up by law in 2006 and housed at the Sherlock Center. But state funding ceased in 2016.
Infante-Green had previously told 12 News she was open to exploring a budget line item, but Tuesday night’s comments were the first time she said she would actually request the funding from lawmakers.
Spokespeople for both the House and Senate said Wednesday no requests have yet been made.
Gov. Dan McKee, who took office shortly after the layoff notices went out, has not responded to requests for comment on whether he supports a line item for the program.
McKee’s state budget proposal was submitted to lawmakers in March, but the General Assembly makes changes to the document and negotiates the final budget with the governor before passage, typically in June.
Parents have been organizing around the effort since early March, setting up an online petition that has garnered 8,000 signatures and scheduling a rally outside the temporary House chambers at the Vets auditorium next week.
The union that represents the 13 teachers at Sherlock have also filed a lawsuit over the layoffs.
The executive director of the Sherlock Center has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.