At a time when budget cuts have left many public schools struggling, the superintendent of the Missouri School for the Deaf has reason to feel grateful.
“We are delighted that it was not any more,” Barbara Garrison said. “We were dealing with the possibility of much more severe cuts.”
The school, which is almost entirely dependent on state and federal appropriations, endured $271,000 in state budget cuts earlier this year and was required to use other funds for staff raises that totaled $90,000. The reduction in funds does not require cutting into school programs yet, but some repair projects were postponed.
One high-priority repair that will have to wait is the track.
“Our track is a state-of-the-art facility, used by the community and the surrounding communities an enormous amount,” Garrison said.
Garrison thinks the School for the Deaf was spared steeper cuts because it is a special school that serves all districts in Missouri. She also credits the community with protecting the school.
“The people in Fulton love to have us here and are strong advocates for us,” she said. “Any time the school is mentioned in the community, people jump on it in the most positive way.”
The school reciprocates by opening its pool, auditorium, track, gyms and field to the community and local YMCA.
“Last year we had 400 different events by the community held at the school,” said Thomas Zengel, the school’s business manager.
In the meantime, administrators have found creative, and unexpected, ways to save money. Diverging from the usual program of chartering buses to take students home every other weekend, a school-conducted study found that money could be saved by sending students home every weekend. The school now uses its own buses and state vehicles for transportation and spares the cost of weekend residential, nursing and kitchen staff.
The school closed its middle school dormitories, merging students into elementary and high school residences. The reduction follows a recommendation made in a 2002 state audit and brings dormitory capacity to its maximum.
In spite of all the school’s efforts, further large cuts inevitably would hurt school programs and require a reduction of staff, Garrison said.
“The school is a tight-knit agency where staff really is like family,” Garrison said. “We’ll have everyone take on a little more responsibility rather than see someone lose their job.”
Adding to the school’s financial concerns is the possibility of losing federal funding. The special education law requires the school to spend at least as much as the previous year on each student to qualify for federal aid, Zengel said. Last year, the School for the Deaf spent an average of $54,000 per student. If it does not spend equal to that amount per student this year, the school could lose $419,000 of federal funding. The school received $6.5 million in state funds last year, in addition to the federal funds.
“We spent every penny that we could, according to state rules,” Zengel said.
Enrollment will be the deciding factor in determining if the school can meet the federal requirements. If too many students enroll, the school will not have enough to spend the minimum required for each child. Last year, there were 138 students at the School for the Deaf; current enrollment stands at 121.
With the restructuring and lower enrollment, Garrison thinks the school can absorb the $360,000 loss, but the enrollment numbers used by the federal government will not be available until Sept. 30.
“We have a small trust fund we can pull from, but we’re waiting to see what happens,” Zengel said.
The fund contains $239,000, with money periodically trickling in from donations and estates. Using money from this fund would require approval from the state board.
As a state agency, the School for the Deaf is prohibited from externally raising funds to cover costs. Groups such as the Missouri School for the Deaf Parents Organization, the MSD Charitable Foundation and the school’s alumni association help support smaller projects.
“We’ll do everything possible to avoid a reduction in force or sacrifice services for kids,” Garrison said.