OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: A matter of decency

State government seems to have discovered only lately that the buildings of the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Arkansas School for the Deaf are in significant disrepair.

Top state officials have responded in the last few days with tones of urgency and in words that suggest that they intend to address the problem more broadly than with simple fixes.

Within a couple of weeks of an eye-opening legislative tour of the adjoining but administratively independent schools on expansive old-town Little Rock grounds, the issue has broadened significantly.

Legislative discussions have widened to possibilities including building a new joint facility for the two schools on the existing site or even selling that property and building elsewhere (leaving a vast midtown expanse for something different, which would become its own issue).

Alumni of the schools tend to have great loyalty to the existing campus.

Still, there already was wildly premature speculation last week about what to do with the space if the schools were moved.

One bright fellow wondered if Lyon College's proposed new dental and veterinarian schools might be placed there, now that plans for housing in the Heifer International headquarters near Little Rock's East Village have fallen through.

I probably shouldn't even bring up such unripe matters. And I certainly shouldn't do that without the disclosure that I live within a stone's throw of this site and have a particular interest, not to mention something of a devotion to the schools as good neighbors.

Other bandied options--thoughts, really, not practical options yet--include opening regional centers for the visually and hearing impaired in existing public schools around the state.

The problem seems to have arisen through a multi-year pattern of inattention or lax attention. That seemed easy enough for state government for facilities that were largely out of sight and mind, even if only yards west of the state Capitol.

Maybe an excuse for inattention was that enrollment was low--down to a couple hundred students. It happened gradually for various reasons, one of them a national policy movement toward giving parents the choice where possible to educate visually impaired and hearing-impaired students in mainstream schools or home schools.

But there could be something to the possible explanation offered by state Sen. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, who represents a district encompassing the schools.

He wonders if enrollment has declined at least in part because parents have looked around at cracked plaster, torn linoleum, drafty windows and roofs caving in over abandoned swimming pools (one on each campus). Perhaps those conditions led parents to choose to attend to their children's special needs elsewhere.

It bears mentioning that the most vocal parents in meetings with the governor and legislators last week wanted the schools kept at the current site in their longtime arrangement. There are no complaints being heard about the location or quality of learning.

It's important also to say that, when people in the Sarah Sanders administration stress that they inherited this problem, they are typically self-defensive but quite right.

This is not a political matter. It's a get-it-fixed matter. It's a matter of decency and compassion.

An overpriced lectern is in no way to blame for a parent reporting to KARK-TV that her child sleeps wearing a heavy coat on cold nights because of air-leaking windows in dorm rooms.

In fact, this matter plays into Sanders' political hands. She can say not only that she merely inherited the problem, but that she fixed it by shaking up the status quo. It's one of her favorite rhetorical themes.

And, of course, there is the bonus of enhancing opportunities and conditions for special-needs children. Both Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to score points with that, surely.

It's no doubt much too early to endorse a plan. But the most direct solution would seem to be building a new combined structure on site. Most states do it that way, some with wings for the visually impaired and deaf connected by a common area with a cafeteria and auditorium.

Whatever happens, Tucker tells me there seems to be consensus on sensitivity to the need to preserve for historical significance at least some of the several structures on site. One surely to be saved for history no matter what happens otherwise is the building that was dedicated with a cornerstone-placing ceremony in 1939 on what had recently been pastureland. The event was attended by Helen Keller with the sponsorship of a local civic club.

A personal postscript: This issue takes me back to that Halloween when hearing-impaired students from the school hit us barely at dusk with a trick-or-treat line extending from our porch to the sidewalk. The youngsters nearly ran us out of candy. But the best part was the vigorous porch conversation as Shalah practiced her signing to an appreciative, excited audience anxious to help. The kids also were anxious to pet the dear and now-departed yellow Labrador retriever happy to receive visitors if embarrassed in that hideous pink angel outfit that was neither her nor my idea.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.