The Superintendent's residence
at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped is located on the institution's
beautiful campus. By July 1 the third superintendent in three years will be taking up
residence in this lovely home.
From the Editor: Much of the October, 1996, issue of the Braille Monitor was devoted to an examination of allegations made by many students and former students against the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped concerning alleged attacks of various kinds over the past quarter century. Those complaints eventually resulted in the filing of civil suits against a number of staff and former staff members of the school. Then on the eve of the first trial, scheduled to begin on Monday, January 26, 1998, a settlement agreement was reached. The details of the agreement have not yet been disclosed and by state law will not be disclosed for several more months.
But this important development is only the most spectacular step in the school's return to a healthy outlook and full attention to its mission to educate and train the state's blind students. A number of changes have taken place at the school since this story first broke. In the early summer of 1996 Jeriel Watkins, who had been the superintendent at the New Mexico School since 1973, retired. Many hoped that his departure from the scene would blunt the outcry from former students and some current students and their parents. The school's board of regents at the time (three women and two men, only one of whom was blind) appointed a committee to conduct the search for a new superintendent. The group came up with several finalists, and the board chose J. Kirk Walter, an administrator at the Maryland School for the Blind with responsibility for public relations. Walter was given a one-year contract, which had been standard procedure during the Watkins years. At the December meeting Walter was given a six-month contract extension.
Then on January 1, 1997, the terms of two of the women board members expired, and during the first week of January the governor announced his appointment of two replacement members. These were James Salas, a long-time leader in the NFB of New Mexico, and Dr. David Small, the father of a blind child. The board's January meeting took place on the 24th, and Salas and Small were not confirmed by the Senate until the 30th, but they sat in on the January meeting even though they could not vote. At that meeting the board rescinded its six-month extension of Walter's appointment and substituted a two-year one instead.
Salas and Small did not actually
join the board until its February, 1997, meeting, but as its first order of business the
board then elected Jim Salas president; Joe Salazar, the other blind member of the board,
vice president; and Dr. Small secretary/treasurer.
Jim Salas, President of the
NMSVH Board of Regents
All this was a profound change in business as usual for the governing board of the school. Gone was the garden-club element that had dominated the board for years. Blind people and parents of blind children were suddenly in positions of real power. Not surprisingly, changes began to occur. The first to feel the effects was Diane Baker, NMSVH director of student services. She had been in charge of academic, residential, and recreational programs for years, and several of the people who spoke to the Braille Monitor told us they believed that she had been a significant part of the cover-up during her tenure. Walter recommended that her contract be extended, but the board did not take that recommendation, so at the close of the '96-97 academic year, Baker left. Dianna Jennings, according to Salas a quiet, dedicated professional with years of teaching experience at the school, was appointed by Walter as vice principal in August of '97 to take up some of the slack. In November, with board concurrence, Walter appointed Jennings to take Baker's place as director of student services.
In the meantime the board was also grappling with the question of Walter's contract. By the summer of 1997 there was considerable board dissatisfaction with Walter even though he was now at the beginning of a two-year contract. Salas says that he had hoped to reach consensus on the board action, but he could not get it. At the August meeting four board members voted to relieve Walter of his duties at the end of the '97-98 academic year. The fifth member, Dr. Small, wanted him gone immediately. Salas says that with Baker gone, Jennings not yet fully in place, and the school year already two weeks old, he could not support the notion of leaving the school with both chief administrative positions unfilled. So the vote to accept Walter's resignation in June of 1998 was approved by a vote of four to one. Many incorrectly assumed that this reflected the presence of one Walter supporter on the board, but that was not the case. According to Salas, Walter will receive reasonable moving expenses but no remuneration for the second year of his contract.
Salas says that he has had a cordial working relationship with Walter during the year they have worked together, but he was determined to conduct the search for his successor very differently from the search that brought Walter to New Mexico. The board contracted with a consulting firm, Huge and Wise of Denver, to do a good bit of the preliminary work of the search, and Salas has only the highest praise for the job Jim Huge did. A number of focus-group meetings were conducted throughout the state, and staff, parents, and consumers were urged to attend these meetings or to submit comments by mail, e-mail, fax, and voice-mail for the board's use. In this way a profile of the kind of leader the school was looking for emerged. Huge brought a stack of files and resumes to a board meeting in early February from which the regents chose the four finalists, whom they then brought to the school for interviews on February 17 and 18.
Dr. Nell Carney, recently named superintendent
of the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped
On February 19 they chose Dr. Nell Carney, former Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and a one-time student of Dr. Jernigan's at the Tennessee School for the Blind. According to Salas, most people are delighted with the choice, and Carney seems to be looking forward to the challenge facing her. At this writing, in late February, the final details have not been settled, but Carney will be on board before the beginning of the '98-99 academic year.
It seems as if the long agony of the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped may actually be over. Blind people and parents of blind children at last have a significant voice in the governance of the institution. A blind superintendent with credentials in education and years of administrative experience has been appointed. Other fine appointments have been made, and several staff members associated in the public mind with the allegations of abuse are gone. On February 10 Jerry Watkins, the man believed by many to have borne most of the responsibility for the school's troubles, died suddenly. (See the Monitor Miniatures section of this issue for the details.) And of course the civil law suits that threatened to cast a heartbreaking shadow over the school and its alumni for years to come have now been settled.
The New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped now seems ready to write a new page in its history. In many ways this school has more advantages than other residential schools: a wonderful campus, amazing autonomy, financial independence, a dedicated and talented staff, and a large geographic base from which to draw students who would not otherwise have a chance at good blindness training in their rural school districts. Can the board of regents, Nell Carney, the school staff and students, and the blind community in New Mexico pull off the resurrection?
Certainly everyone hopes so. Here is the article written by
reporter Rene Romo in the January 27, 1998, edition of the