Braille Monitor                                                                                                        May 2004

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NAC President's Job Eliminated

by Barbara Pierce

Lee Robinson, president of the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving People with Blindness or Visual Impairment (NAC) discovered the hard way on March 5, 2004, that most of the time the chickens come home to roost. Robinson has been superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (USDB) since 1994, and the clouds have been gathering almost from the beginning. In recent months, however, he has faced growing criticism arising from the school's audit, increasing restiveness from the USDB teachers union, demands from the NFB of Utah for change in business as usual at the school, and finally the elimination of his job by the Utah Board of Education.

Since he has served as chief flag waver for professional excellence and ethics during his year and more as NAC president in the accrediting body's efforts to persuade anyone who would take them seriously that NAC accreditation ensures excellence and professional responsibility in the agencies that acquire its seal of good practice, one wonders if Robinson will soon be forced in the name of common decency to resign from his NAC position.

Federationists will remember that on September 10, 2001, President Maurer, James Gashel, and Peggy Elliott met with representatives of NAC, including Dr. Robinson, to explore the possibility of papering over the differences between our two organizations well enough to enable NAC to become a viable accrediting body. The NFB representatives asked the NAC executive director, Steve Hegedeos, and then NAC President Steve Obremsky, if they were aware of the allegations of student abuse at USDB that were then filling the papers in Utah. They denied knowing anything about the problems, and Robinson pooh-poohed the matter.

For many reasons, including the clear message that NAC was no more interested in looking into member agency problems than it had ever been, the talks fell through, and very soon thereafter Lee Robinson became NAC president. Here is an editorial that appeared on February 9, 2004, in the Ogden, Utah, Standard- Examiner. It is particularly instructive because it reviews USDB shortcomings throughout the Robinson administration. The piece appeared before the legislative review committee had done more than take testimony. Here it is:

Make Change at Utah's Deaf and Blind School

Problems at the School Have Been Persistent
during Robinson's Tenure

When a public official is trusted with taxpayer money and charged with the education and care of the most vulnerable children among us, the standard for performance should be high.

The leadership of Lee Robinson, the superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, has set a tone of mediocre management. So it's time for a change.

The laundry list is a long one, including:

• A November 1994 State Board of Education audit released three months after Robinson became superintendent of the USDB questioned whether students were being trained effectively, whether resources were being used wisely, and whether steps were being taken to avoid financial problems. Robinson said no one should be surprised by the findings, but committed to making improvements.

• In December 1995 two dozen parents complained to the schools' Parent Advisory Council about educational deficiencies, including teachers who didn't listen to parents and Robinson's lack of response to parental concerns.

• In September 1996 a lawsuit was filed against the USDB because a student had twice been sexually abused by another student. The suit alleged that a USDB administrator--not Robinson--was warned after the first incident but still failed to stop a second incident two weeks later.

• Years later, after a judge ruled in favor of the school administrator named in the sex-abuse lawsuit, school staff threw a party to celebrate the decision.

• In April 2001 a mother alleged, and a police report substantiated the claim, that a teacher had slapped her disabled four-year-old son in the head. It also alleged another teacher had force-fed the boy. The police report said the teacher admitted hitting two other students too. The teacher eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

• In September 2001 the teacher's aide who reported the physical abuse at the USDB was fired. Robinson said her position was eliminated due to federal budget cuts.

Fast forward to last week and a performance audit of the USDB. It found that in July 2002, when Robinson was queried by lawmakers during the state's fiscal crunch about USDB funds, he failed to include at least $850,000 in surplus funds and told the legislature six positions at USDB had to be cut. Furthermore, the school reported six unfilled teaching jobs when there were really nine. The audit showed as well that USDB had access at the time to considerable federal funds that had yet to be collected and that it had failed to comply with state law regarding salary increases. The audit also found the Utah Board of Education has been lax in overseeing the USDB.

Testifying before a legislative committee on which sat House Speaker Marty Stephens and Senate President Al Mansell, Robinson said he did not intentionally mislead lawmakers in July 2002. He said he simply misunderstood the information about which he was testifying.

Stephens put it bluntly: "Dr. Robinson, why would the committee ever want to have you testify in front of ... (it) again? Why would they believe you?"

Good questions. The USDB serves more than 1,500 students across the state. From the looks of it, it isn't being managed as well as it could be. One reason could be insufficient state oversight. Indeed the State Office of Education in September 2003 approved another year of employment for Robinson after its annual review of his performance.

It's time for the state to put a magnifying glass on the USDB. The students, their parents, and taxpayers deserve better than they've been getting.

That editorial did a good job of reviewing the high points--or, perhaps more accurately, the low points--of the Robinson years at USDB. But what was the straw that broke the camel's back? A number of Utah papers reported the story. Here is the one that appeared February 6, 2004, in the Deseret Morning News:

Deaf, Blind Schools in Hot Seat
by Jennifer Toomer-Cook

The State Board of Education today will discuss whether Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind administrators should keep their jobs in light of an unflattering financial audit.

The action comes at the request of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. The subcommittee Thursday discussed a legislative audit that found the USDB had $850,000 it could have used to hire teachers but instead reported the funds were restricted and left the jobs vacant, among other financial concerns.

The subcommittee asked the school board and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing to consider and recommend administrative personnel changes.

"When you have children who have so many needs, so many specific needs, and you leave these positions vacant when you have the money to hire the teachers ... I would say it is a gross mismanagement of funds," said Representative Karen Morgan, D-Cottonwood Heights. "I have my own personal feelings about (administrative) personnel changes that should take place, but I would like that recommendation to come from (Laing and the school board), and I would like it as soon as possible."

There are perhaps three people at USDB who would meet the definition of at-will administrative employees, including the school's budgeter and its superintendent, Lee Robinson, Laing acknowledged.

The personnel recommendation must be submitted within two months. Today's discussion, under protocol for personnel matters, will not be open to the public.

"I'm not surprised they're asking for it," Laing said.

Robinson declined to comment on Thursday's action.

In summer 2002 legislative budgeters discovered the USDB had a cash surplus of $1.75 million, and recommended half of that be used to help cover the state's budget deficit. In doing so, lawmakers stressed the reduction should not hurt classroom instruction.

Shortly afterward USDB reported the budget cut would end up reducing its operating budget because remaining surplus money was restricted. So it decided to leave positions unfilled--nine in all, the audit found.

In January 2003 legislators requested an audit to see whether those cuts were needed.

The answer: no, according to the audit released this week.

Auditors found the schools had $850,000 in surplus money last fiscal year that was not restricted or otherwise committed and could have been used to hire needed teachers.

The vacancies instead ended up increasing teacher workloads, leading to "difficulty providing effective instruction" and higher class size, the audit states.

In a meeting earlier this week, legislative leaders grilled Robinson over why he reported the funds were restricted.

Robinson acknowledged making wrong claims but said it was not deliberate.

The audit said USDB never misappropriated funds.

But it found the schools shortchanged teachers on pay raises last year and overdid raises this year because they did not follow the legal process for calculating salary increases. The two financially balanced out.

Some of the problems were attributed to "the lack of a well-qualified finance director," the audit states. The current finance director has a two-year degree in accounting, whereas other district finance directors have at least a bachelor's degree, and many have advanced degrees or are certified public accountants.

"Inasmuch as the current finance director is approaching retirement, we recommend that, when the administration hires a new finance director, they select a person with the experience, education, and training needed to navigate the complex finances of the USDB," the audit states.

The school also needs better oversight and needs to improve reporting on student progress toward individual education goals, the audit states.

The State Office of Education, in a response to the audit, agreed with the recommendations. It also mapped an eighteen-month action plan.

"Although there is clear need for major changes in some budget procedures, the acknowledgement from the Legislative Auditor General's Office that neither mismanagement nor malfeasance have played any role in these concerns is welcome news," states the response, prepared by Robinson and associate state superintendents Patti Harrington and Patrick Ogden.

"It appears that, if anything, the concerns identified in the audit are resulting from ultraconservative actions related to budget and the sizable budget reserves that followed from those actions."

In an article titled "USDB Finances under Scrutiny" published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner on Saturday, February 7, reporter Amy Stewart explained the budgeting practices that brought the wrath of state officials down on USDB:

... At the beginning of a fiscal year, USDB is assured how much money is in its budget and can make hiring and other funding decisions accordingly, Robinson said.

"We bill them (the legislature) and use that money the next year," he said.

Otherwise, if the school used the funding the year it comes in, that money could fluctuate, making it difficult for the school to budget, Robinson said.

But auditors and state education officials say reimbursements should be used in the year for which services were provided.

"This year's money should serve this year's children," said state associate superintendents Patrick Ogden and Patti Harrington, in a joint written statement.

Further, the school's funds need to be represented to the legislature correctly, the statement said.

"Admittedly USDB administration has inappropriately referred to these carry forward funds as ‘restricted' funds. Rather, these are ‘committed' funds to the next year's budget and are not restricted in purpose," it said.

The joint statement outlined future direction for USDB, including requiring the school to turn in monthly statements to the state board. ...

The board of education held a closed-door session on February 6, but the following Friday they invited public comment. Naturally the speakers represented almost every possible point of view, including that of the organized blind. In a February 14 story titled "No Decisions, Many Opinions as Board Discusses Schools for Deaf and Blind," Tanna Barry included some of the comments:

... Some people worried the committee would recommend that USDB Superintendent Lee Robinson be removed from his post while others championed that as the only way to have change.

Tammie Payette, president of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind Education Association, told the committee the current school administration has ignored its mission of providing high-quality services to children by leaving teaching positions vacant.

Last year during a general meeting of the association, Payette said many teachers wanted to hold a vote of no confidence in Robinson's administration.

"Now that the audit is complete, the time for change is here," she said. "We're concerned about (Robinson's) business-as-usual attitude. The teachers cannot understand this seeming disregard for the immediate needs of our children." ...

While Sanderson [Robert Sanderson, a member of the USDB institutional council] said the school had erred on the side of caution in its financial practices, he said Robinson has always done his best to manage the school and that maybe the State Board of Education should offer financial education help to USDB.

Robinson told the committee he had not intended any wrongdoing, but admitted to taking an overly conservative approach to how budget money was used. He explained that the funds, deemed an excessive carry forward by the audit, were restricted because they were earmarked for use in the next year's budget.

The audit also suggested the school had about $442,000 in uncollected federal moneys that weren't accounted for in the budget. Robinson told the committee it was the school's practice to collect the federal funds after the end of the fiscal year.

"Some mistakes were made," he said. "There is no question of that. The only thing that has bothered me through this process is that people have questioned my motivation. It has always been my top priority to make children successful." ...

That is the way things stood until the March 6 meeting of the State Board of Education. Here is the March 6 story that appeared in the Ogden Standard-Examiner:

Board of Education Dismisses USDB Leader
Financial Decisions Called into Question

by Amy K. Stewart

Scrutinized for his financial budgeting decisions, Lee Robinson, superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind in Ogden, will soon be looking for a new job.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Friday to dissolve Robinson's job position, restructure and rename USDB leadership, and provide more oversight to the school, especially regarding its finances.

Robinson has the opportunity to reapply for the school's new leadership position. The board plans to advertise the position immediately, with the search ending in ninety days.

Robinson was out of town Friday and unavailable for comment. He has been superintendent since August 1994.

USDB Assistant Superintendent Linda Rutledge said she hopes he will reapply.

"He's been a strong leader for USDB, and I sincerely hope he will continue to be our leader in the new position proposed by the State Board of Education," Rutledge said.

However, some USDB teachers, who have voiced complaints about Robinson's management for quite some time, support the board members' actions.

"I think they have listened to the many sides of the issue and made a decision in the best interest of the children of the school," said USDB teacher Carol Ruddell.

The board's decision was in response to an audit by the legislative auditor general, who recommended changes to USDB management structure. The decision also followed a series of meetings of the board's audit committee.

The legislative audit alleged Robinson misrepresented the school's financial condition during budget cuts in 2002. Specifically under scrutiny was $850,000 of 2002 USDB funding that could have been used to hire teachers. However, the school left jobs vacant.

Robinson said in earlier interviews his financial decisions were simply conservative budgeting practices in which he chose to wait until he knew how much funding was coming in, then applied it to the next year's budget, instead of spending the money immediately.

The Legislative Auditor General's Office said neither mismanagement nor malfeasance played a role in the audit concerns.

However, the board unanimously voted Friday to issue a letter of reprimand to Robinson and also to restructure USDB administration.

"It's a dramatic move," said Patti Harrington, associate superintendent of Student Achievement and School Success, with the state office.

USDB will be supervised by Carl Wilson, director of At Risk and Special Education Services, in the state office.

The position of USDB superintendent will be retitled Principal Academic and Operations Officer. This person will be under the direct authority of the director (Wilson).

The USDB finance director, currently Vicki Bell, will be under direct authority of the state office finance director. The USDB position will be moved, either part-time or possibly full-time, from the USDB site in Ogden to the state office site in Salt Lake City.

That was the report of the decisions made at the March 5 meeting. Here is a brief synopsis of the Utah Board of Education's final decisions as circulated by Patti Harrington, associate superintendent for student achievement and school success:

The Utah State Board of Education has eliminated the position of superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind (USDB) and divided the duties among three positions: director of at risk and special education services (an existing position); principal academic and operations officer for USDB; and finance manager for USDB. The board also more closely specified membership on the schools' Institutional Council. Currently there are eleven members, two of whom represent the blind community and two the deaf community. To those four positions, the board specified that the remaining members represent the following:

     A local district special educator;

     A local district business administrator;

     A representative of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation (USOR) Division of Services for the      Deaf and Hard of Hearing;

     A representative of USOR Division of Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired;

     Three parents of students receiving services at USDB, one of a deaf child, one of a blind child, and      one of a deaf-blind child;

     One nonvoting member who is a USDB teacher.

The move came in response to an audit by the legislative auditor general, who recommended changes to management structure, and after a series of meetings of the board's Audit Committee. USDB Superintendent Lee Robinson, who was formally reprimanded, will be allowed to apply for the new position of principal. No timeline was established for the change to a principal form of management.

For more information contact Patti Harrington, associate superintendent for student achievement and school success, (801) 538-7515.

There you have the facts of the story in Utah. By early June Lee Robinson's job as USDB superintendent will be no more. He may decide to apply for the replacement position, but with a letter of reprimand in his file, it seems doubtful that he will be an attractive candidate. We can be fairly certain, however, that NAC will stand by its controversial president. After all, NAC stood by when a USDB teacher admitted striking children but retained her job, when the aide who complained about such treatment of young multiply disabled children lost hers, and when USDB engaged in improper budget practices because those doing the work did not have the training or knowledge to do it correctly. Why should we expect NAC to demand excellence in its leadership?

The NFB of Utah has fought for years for the preservation of USDB under reorganized leadership while insisting that more accountability in teaching Braille and protecting the safety of the students be provided. In letters and testimony the NFB has urged reorganization of the school and disassociation with NAC as first steps toward better service to the blind children of Utah. The first of these steps has now been taken.

We rejoice in the possibilities that now exist in the education of Utah's blind students. We can only hope that those dealing with the recent excitement in Utah will come to recognize that the seal of good practice from NAC still means as little as it ever did. We wish those working to restore the good name of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind the very best of luck, and we suggest that the obvious next step in this direction would be to abandon NAC membership and certification. The following article demonstrates how it's done.

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