LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and state leaders met Tuesday to discuss solutions for the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the School for the Deaf.
The meeting came exactly a week after a KARK 4 News story that shed light on conditions inside the schools.
In the meeting with the governor was Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva, state legislators including Senate President Pro Tem Bart Hester and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and parents and grandparents of students.
The governor’s spokesperson released a statement after the meeting.
“The governor stated that the condition of the schools is unfit for the students there and problems are getting worse. She reiterated that we can and must do better by the students, including addressing academic, safety, and security issues,” the statement read. “The governor stated that it would be a failure to leave the school in the condition that it is and as leaders we are not serving the community to the best of our abilities. All agreed to continue working together swiftly toward a comprehensive solution that will better serve the students and their families.”
KARK 4 News spoke to Tiffany Henry in last week’s story. She has a son in 5th grade who lives on campus at ASBVI. She spoke about her concerns in his dorm and school building.
“The school is a beautiful building with incredible staff and teachers, but it’s falling apart,” Henry said in last week’s interview. “It’s plaster falling off the walls, it’s chunks of the floor that the linoleum is long gone.”
Henry said the windows inside her son’s dorms need to be upgraded as well.
“There’s cracks around the windows, there’s hardly any insulation so at night he gets super cold,” she said. “He has to sleep with a winter coat on. We’ve had to send extra blankets.”
Following the story, Henry was invited to the private meeting with state legislators where she was able to share her son’s experience.
“The first thing I took away was how serious they’re taking this problem,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “I was really happy and excited to see how much they care about both of the schools.”
Henry added that other family members were there as well and were able to share their concerns.
“I visited with a set of grandparents after the meeting was over. The grandmother told me that she saw the news broadcast, and that broadcast gave her the inspiration to write to the governor their experience as grandparents,” Henry said. “Because of that letter, they were invited to the meeting. All of the parental and family input at that meeting was because of your broadcast.”
KARK 4 News spoke with Sen. Bart Hester about the meeting on Wednesday as well, and what solutions were discussed.
“I assure you we’re going to make some decisions,” he stated.
Hester said the decisions could start playing out as soon as 2024, first with a new building, where both schools would come together as one. He said Arkansas is the only state in the nation with two separate schools for the blind and visually impaired, and the deaf.
The senator also said leaders discussed some consolidation on a few fronts. From the 133 acres and 35 buildings currently, to the six principals and two superintendents.
He said it is still being debated where the new building would go, but the state has allocated $134 million for work on both schools.
“We have the funds available,” Hester said. “It’s the right thing to do. There’s no question if it needs to be done. It’s time to act.”
Hester added that Arkansas public schools spend about $15,000 per student per year, and the state currently spends about $107,000 on students every year at ASBVI and the School for the Deaf. He believes that spending can be lowered as they find ways to get more out of their money and provide a more quality education. Hester said the focus needs to be not only on the typical subjects in school, but also the culture the students will have to prepare for to be in the outside world one day.
Hester also added that Secretary Oliva has been focused on these problems since he came to Arkansas. He said the secretary has attended six school board meetings already and has been working on solutions for months, leading up to this meeting.
The Department of Education did not provide an updated comment and referred back to their original statement at the time the first story aired last week.
“Governor Sanders and Secretary Oliva have said they would disrupt the failed status quo that has been failing our students for far too long. We recently invited legislators to tour the schools, so they could see firsthand the condition and issues with the facilities,” the statement said. “We will continue to work closely with the Governor’s Office and the legislature to develop a solution that ensures students have a thriving environment in which to learn.”