Suburban Life Publications

State’s only deaf-blind school might close due to budget woes

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Glen Ellyn, IL — The state’s only educational facility for children that are both deaf and blind, the Philip J. Rock Center and School in Glen Ellyn, might be closing its doors in the coming months due to a budget crunch caused by $1 billion it is owed by the state.

After receiving payment last week for a fraction of the state’s outstanding debt, the center and school will be able to keep their doors open for another month to six weeks, Chief Administrator Peggy Whitlow said.

“I wish I knew the future,” Whitlow said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s all depending on what payments we’re able to receive or if we’re able to develop some other plan to get us through the shortfall the state is experiencing.”

The year-round Philip J. Rock School has 14 resident students, while the Philip J. Rock Center serves more than 435 children statewide through Project Reach: Illinois Deaf-Blind Services. Project Reach works with schools and community service providers throughout Illinois to provide technical assistance, information, and training to improve services and outcomes for deaf-blind children and their families.

It costs about $250,000 a month to keep the facility running. Last week, the center and school received $300,000 from the state, without which it would have been forced to close even sooner.

“If we had not received (the payment), I would not be able to pay the staff after (Aug. 5),” Whitlow said. “Would there have been staff that would have come in even though they weren’t guaranteed pay? Probably. (For) how long? I don’t know.”

A major portion of the Rock Center and School’s budget goes toward its 60-person staff.

“(Because the children are deaf-blind), they can be in a room full of people and still be alone because they can’t see or take in what’s going on around them unless someone is there actually assisting them and helping them,” Whitlow said. “So a large part of our budget is for staff.”

Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget spokeswoman, Kelly Kraft, said the state has a backlog of bills and money it owes to many agencies, including the Rock Center and School. A combination of actions, including spending cuts, job creation, increased revenue and government assistance, will be needed “to get the state back on track,” according to Kraft.

“The governor is committed on making good on all payments due,” Kraft said.

That might be too little too late to solve the Rock Center’s budget problems, but Whitlow said the Rock Center will keep its doors open as long as possible.

“I would never jump the gun and just start discontinuing services until I got in a position where we really had to,” Whitlow said. “So, certainly if I couldn’t have had enough staff to keep the children safe and keep their program going, then I would have to do some something different. ... But I hesitate to say ‘Oh, we’re going to close.’”

Resident students are placed in the Rock School by their school district, parents and an educational team. If it is determined that the child’s needs extend beyond what the local school district is able to provide, students can attend the Rock School for free, with the cost of their education being offset by state funding, Whitlow said.

Whitlow said the school’s closing would be disruptive to the children’s education and their families.

“We would do everything we can to assist their school district in finding something that would be appropriate,” Whitlow said. “The way I look at it, I'm putting all my energy in receiving the (state) funds.”

The Rock Center’s closure would also affect Project Reach, according to Project Coordinator Michelle Clyne. Though it is federally funded through Sept. 30, 2013 by the U.S. Department of Education, Project Reach is operated out of the Rock Center and relies on its infrastructure, office space, computer systems and servers.

“I don’t know if we’d be able to cover the state as thoroughly as we do if now we have to put money into infrastructure rather than into the time and talents of the people who work for us,” Clyne said. “Obviously, (we’d) have to pay rent, electric, phone, Internet, all that kind of stuff that might have to take a big bite out of the project.”