PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After months of outcry from parents and students over changes planned for a state program for blind and visually impaired students, General Assembly leaders pledged Monday to add a line item to the state budget to fund the program as it is for at least two years.
House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said funding for the Paul V. Sherlock Center at Rhode Island College would be added to the budget this year, allowing blind students to “continue services with their current teachers interrupted,” according to a news release.
The Sherlock Center, which employs 13 teachers who go into public schools to serve blind students, had sent out layoff notices earlier this year amid plans by the R.I. Department of Education to move to a new multiservice model that would have pulled all the center’s funding.
“For the next 24 months, they are the winning bidder so to speak,” Shekarchi said at a news conference outside the center. “We are going to continue with an earmark in our state budget to make sure that this program is fully funded.”
The commitment thus far is to create a $685,000 line item in the upcoming budget year that starts July 1, according to a spokesperson, and also to fund the program next year.
In addition, the two legislative leaders have formed a working group made up of four members of the House and four from the Senate will develop a “long-term strategy and plan for the state’s services for blind and visually impaired students,” the news release said.
“The relationships these teachers have forged with students over the course of years of working together are instrumental in the students’ success,” Ruggerio said in a statement. “We believe the funding we are committing to today will provide a bridge enabling us to work together collaboratively and develop a long-term solution.”
The controversy over funding for the Rhode Island Vision Education and Services Program (RIVESP) erupted earlier this year after RIDE put the program out to bid for a Master Price Agreement. The agency argued it was legally obligated to do so because the Sherlock Center’s contract was expiring.
Sherlock had been the sole provider of the state’s services for 15 years, with RIDE using a $684,000 federal grant to fund the contract. But some school districts were independently contracting with the Massachusetts-based Perkins School for the Blind or hiring their own providers and not getting reimbursed by the state, prompting RIDE to change course.
The plan was to pull the federal grant from Sherlock and use it to reimburse school districts that contracted with vendors who bid on the Master Price Agreement (MPA). But since Sherlock used the grant to pay its 13 teachers, the center warned it may not be able to bid on the contract without the funding.
Parents and students, fearful they’d lose their trusted teachers for the visually impaired and orientation and mobility specialists, began calling for state funding for the RIVESP program, which was set up by state law in 2006. They started a petition and rallied outside the House chamber in April.
“I particularly thank the students and their families, who showed incredible determination and courage in coming forward to advocate for the services to which they are entitled,” Shekarchi said in a statement. “It is clear that the programs at the Sherlock Center are working and its students are thriving.”
The deal means the layoffs are being rescinded. A lawsuit filed by the union representing the teachers has therefore been dropped, said Frank Flynn of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.
Both Sherlock and the Perkins School submitted bids by the April 30 deadline. A RIDE spokesperson said the MPA process is ongoing.
The program has not had any funding in the state budget since 2016, according to the House Fiscal Office. There are roughly 126 blind and visually impaired students receiving the services in Rhode Island.