Officials Scramble to Keep Computers for Deaf and Blind

EVA RUSSO/TIMES-DISPATCH

Computers were recently boxed for removal at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.
By Olympia Meola
Published: July 01, 2011

In January 2010, state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. introduced legislation to exempt the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind
from the state’s centralized computer network, a one-size-fits-all system that was not designed to meet the school’s specialized education needs and costs it tens of thousands of dollars a month.

He agreed to postpone his bill to work something out with the governor’s office or the state’s computer chief.

That was 17 months ago.

This summer, the school plans to dump more than half of its 200 personal computers and consolidate the rest into computer labs for students and teachers to share, just to pay its IT bills.

On Thursday, Hanger
sat around a long table with the rest of the school’s board of visitors, whose members vented perplexity and frustration with the process and tried to
think of ways to accelerate a release of the school from the computer control of the
Virginia Information Technologies Agency.

“We want to have the state of the art here and … they’re just not in a position to serve our needs in a cost-effective manner,” said
Hanger, R-Augusta.

“My opinion is that the school should not be covered (by VITA) at all.”

A couple of members suggested pursuing an exemption legislatively or through the state budget if something can’t be worked out administratively by the board’s next meeting in September.

The board of the 173-year-old Staunton school includes two Virginia senators and two delegates:
Hanger, Sen. Patricia S. Ticer, D-Alexandria, Del. R. Steven Landes,
R-Augusta, and Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton.

By September, teachers will be back at school, likely without a computer in their classrooms.

“I feel like we’re going back to the future, really,” Rachel M. Bavister told her fellow board members through
a sign language interpreter.

“The teachers are frantic.”

John Pleasants, a board member and alumnus of the school’s program for the blind, said he had received a call that morning from a parent of a former student who was worried about the future of the computer programs.

“We’re doing the best we can with reduced resources at present but we hope to change that as soon as possible,” he said.

VITA is well aware of the situation at the school, and the state’s chief information officer, Samuel A. Nixon Jr., said he’s willing to make accommodations
because he understands the special case. Secretary of Technology Jim Duffey on Thursday agreed that some modifications are possible.

No other public K-12 school is under VITA’s umbrella, nor are the state’s colleges and universities. But the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind is technically an agency. And that’s where VITA comes in. By state law, it handles IT for executive branch agencies.

Nixon and Duffey have suggested that the school could peel its classroom computers off of the network and just keep back-office and administrative computers part of the system, which includes security and monitoring.

Even then, though, they warn that it could end up costing the school as much money as the current system. Northrop Grumman, which has a $2.5 billion contract with VITA to run the state’s computers, owns the hardware. So the school would start from scratch.

The school needs the flexibility to adapt to its students’ and teachers’ needs, said Doug Wright, the school’s IT manager. For example, above the school’s monthly IT costs of $27,700, the school pays for adaptive learning software programs.

The students’ computers don’t necessarily need high-level security; they need stereo speakers, Wright said. For blind students, “stereo speakers are like having color monitors,” he said.

Other state agencies have experienced similar pains with the one-size-fits-all contract that was signed under then-Gov. Mark R. Warner and extended under Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Duffey, who noted that the school’s $335,000 annual IT costs are a fraction of the school’s annual budget of $10.3 million, said the goal is to “figure
out how to treat them with some particularity as opposed to a one-size-fits-all operation.”

The school serves about 115 deaf and blind students from preschool to their early 20s on a campus in Staunton that includes dormitory space.

What they do is “important work, it’s wonderful work and I think we ought to try to get them the kind of support that they need in order to discharge their
mission,” Duffey said.

omeola@timesdispatch.com (804) 649-6814
Reproduced from http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/2011/jul/01/tdmain01-lawmaker-may-seek-legislative-remedy-for–ar-1144954/