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Inside the fight for funding for RI’s blind and visually impaired children

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Ryan Lukowicz is a 15-year-old aspiring meteorologist who attends North Kingstown High School.

His high school experience is a little different from other teenagers. He’s completely blind in his right eye, and has little vision in his left due to a condition called coloboma of the optic nerve.

Lukowicz goes to regular classes with his sighted peers, but does so with the crucial help of a teacher for the visually impaired (TVI), who helps adapt lessons — for example, turning a color-coded chart into one using texture or assisting with audio technology for reading assignments. Lukowicz also reads braille.

His other specialist is an orientation & mobility specialist (O&M) who helps him get around with a white cane and navigate things like public transportation, so he can maneuver in the real world as an adult.

His specialists are two of 13 teachers who work at the Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College, the longtime home of Rhode Island’s services for blind and visually impaired students, under a program created by a 2006 law.

All 13 of those teachers received layoff notices last month, told their jobs would end on June 30.

“I was disgusted,” Lukowicz said in an interview with Target 12 last week. “And just worried. For what this would mean for not only them and their personal lives, but it directly impacts my future and my trajectory from here.”

The layoffs — which parents say they only found out about because of a newspaper article — have sparked a flurry of outrage, information campaigns, a petition, a lawsuit and a rally scheduled at the State House for later this month.

A new model for vision services

The pink slips for Sherlock’s teachers are the result of a shift by the R.I. Department of Education to a multiservice model for blind students, which would theoretically provide more options for school districts, even as it could cause students to lose their trusted teachers.

As it stands now, Sherlock is the sole provider of services under the Rhode Island Vision Education and Services Program (RIVESP), receiving a $684,000 federal grant through RIDE under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The grant goes toward the payroll and benefits of the 10 TVIs and three O&Ms at Sherlock, who work inside Rhode Island’s public schools to help roughly 126 blind and visually impaired students.

But when Sherlock’s contract ends this spring, RIDE plans to go out to bid for what’s called a Master Price Agreement, placing qualified bidders on a list, which districts can use to directly contract services for their students.

The $684,000 grant will no longer go to Sherlock, instead becoming available for districts to submit for reimbursement.

“This is not something we woke up and we decided to do,” Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told 12 News in an interview. “This is what we have to do.”

Infante-Green says because there are other vendors capable of providing vision services, the state legally can no longer have a “sole-source” contract with Sherlock. Plus, some larger districts choose not to use Sherlock and instead hire their own TVIs, therefore receiving no reimbursement from RIDE.

The new model would allow all districts to get a piece of the $684,000. But that also means it can’t solely fund the Sherlock Center anymore.

“When I sit in meetings and I hear Master Price Agreement and I hear vendor … this isn’t about shingling a house or buying nails,” said Diane Lukowicz, Ryan’s mom. “This is about kids, and ensuring success for our students.”

The parents have organized a group called Rhode Island Parents of Vision Impaired Children, and are planning a rally at the State House on April 13. A petition being circulated has more than 8,000 signatures.

“Their jobs are being put out to bid as if they’re just hiring a new paper vendor for the office or something,” said Heidi Lamb, another parent of a visually impaired student, fourth-grader Dominic in Barrington. “It’s rather cruel, isn’t it? A year where we’re in the middle of a pandemic, where absolutely everything has been different for our kids … to say, ‘well, we have to do this.'”

“I want to apologize to parents who are feeling very stressed out about this right now,” Infante-Green acknowledged. “I have a child who is differently-abled, so I understand the stress.”

She pointed out that Sherlock is welcome to bid for the contract, but it currently doesn’t seem likely, according to multiple people with knowledge of Sherlock’s situation who spoke to Target 12.

Amy Grattan, the executive director of the Sherlock Center, did not respond to repeated requests by Target 12 to discuss the center’s finances. But in a statement sent through a RIC spokesperson, she did not sound optimistic about the center’s ability to bid for the MPA, which was posted in late March.

“We are currently reviewing this opportunity, but it is unclear at this time if the Sherlock Center will be able to continue provide these services as constituted by the MPA,” Grattan said in the statement.

She added that the layoff notices were given to teachers as a “precaution” due to the expiring contract, but she did not answer questions about whether Sherlock has access to any other funds that could keep the teachers employed.

RIC spokesperson John Taraborelli also would not answer budget-related questions about the public institution. But filings with the General Assembly indicate the budget at Sherlock already exceeds the $684,000 grant that the center is about to lose. It’s unclear how that deficit is covered each year.

The Howard Union of Teachers, which represents the 13 teachers at Sherlock among others, filed a lawsuit last week accusing the state and RIC of violating the RIVESP law in issuing the layoff notices.

“We believe the state is usurping the law,” said Cheryl Glowacki, the union steward. “The state procurement regulations do not mandate outsourcing of RIVESP services.”

RIDE declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Lack of continuity

If the situation isn’t resolved by summer, parents and students fear the longstanding trust, relationships and progress they’ve made with their Sherlock teachers will be lost.

“Our TVIs and O&M specialists have followed our children through grades,” Lamb said. “That trust is important. They know our kids.”

Ryan Lukowicz — who at 15 is already researching colleges — says he’s worried about the consistency in his education after seeing the same specialists for years.

“A new person coming in means that they have to get to know me,” Lukowicz said. “I’m someone who has no functional vision.”

Students with individualized education plans (IEPs) are entitled to Extended School Year, a summer program that starts shortly after school ends. It remains to be seen whether the existing teachers, or yet-to-be-hired new ones, will be serving the students at that time.

“What the Department of Education needs to realize is there are students who are going to feel the effects of this,” Lukowicz said. “The service stays the same, but the level of quality and quantity may change.”

One vendor that is planning to bid is the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass., which has had some experience in Rhode Island providing TVIs for certain districts that opt not to use the state program at Sherlock.

“As the oldest school for the blind in the United States, we stand ready to serve any student who is blind, visually impaired or deafblind who would benefit from our personalized education services,” Perkins Superintendent Ed Bosso said in a statement.

Among the many questions from parents is how many teachers Perkins would dedicate to the program, and whether they would hire Rhode Island teachers.

“As always, our staffing and hiring decisions are based on need, the geographic location of the families and students we serve, as well as applicants’ qualifications and licensing in the states we serve,” Bosso said. “Should our bid in Rhode Island be successful, we would hire based on that expanded need.”

The fight for state funding

Parents who are organizing around this issue hope they never have to get to the point where the Master Price Agreement list is the only option for TVI and O&Ms in their public schools.

Their main request is for a permanent line item in the state budget, something Rhode Island used to have, but did away with as the program transitioned to Sherlock.

In fact, the TVIs used to be state employees who worked directly for RIDE prior to the creation of the RIVESP law, which came out of a 2005 report written by the Special Commission to Promote and Develop a Comprehensive System of Education for Visually Impaired Children.

The report envisioned a “centralized program” that would be “fully funded and appropriately staffed by specialized professionals … so as to meet the immediate educational needs of all currently underserved or not served blind and visually impaired students in this state.”

The program was housed at Sherlock, and has been there ever since, though the state share of funding has slowly decreased over time. The reductions started with the Gov. Don Carcieri administration and ended with the Gov. Gina Raimondo administration, which completely eliminated state funding for the vision program in 2016, according to the House fiscal office.

Since then, the federal grant has been the sole funding for RIVESP.

“I was really shocked to learn that,” said State Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, who has been looking into the funding issue. “It might be time for us to put a permanent line item in for blind and visually impaired students.”

In contrast to the blind, Rhode Island provides direct state funds for deaf and hard of hearing students through the Rhode Island School for the Deaf. The school, which serves 161 students, received nearly $8 million this year.

It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, since one is a brick-and-mortar school, which has overhead costs. But parents argue that if the state is willing to directly pay for teachers and services for the deaf, they should do so for the blind, too.

“We don’t begrudge them what they have,” said Lamb, who also has a child who attends the deaf school. “We just want equity in the sense that I should not have to worry that every few years Dominic’s teachers are going to be fired and put out to the highest bidder.”

“To do a Master Price Agreement … makes no educational sense to me,” Glowacki said. “It’s beyond me why we have good services, a stable, proper law to protect these children, yet we are decimating it.”

After that 2005 report that launched the RIVESP program, documentation of how the program is going is difficult to find.

While the 2006 RIVESP law mandates the state’s education board must provide an annual report to the General Assembly on the “state and condition of the Rhode Island vision education and services program and a statement of all expenses incurred,” a House spokesperson told Target 12 that staff could not find any reports.

RIDE has also been unable to locate the 15 years worth of mandated reports, if they exist, since Target 12 inquired on March 26. (Chief of Staff Emily Crowell said this year’s report, which was due Jan. 31, has been drafted but not yet submitted to the General Assembly.)

On Monday, spokesperson Victor Morente said the reports were the responsibility of the Sherlock Center.

“I really believe that RIDE has dropped the ball on this,” Casimiro remarked.

Gov. Dan McKee, who took office days after the pink slips went out to Sherlock teachers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he supports a dedicated line item for blind students in the budget.

Heidi Lamb said she hopes the situation is resolved before she has to tell her 9-year-old he’s losing his specialists.

“I haven’t even had the heart to tell him yet that this is happening,” Lamb said. “He’s going to be crushed.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook

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