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Government reorganization raises concerns about the future of the Iowa School for the Deaf

a sign that says Iowa school for the deaf
Some parents and staff at the Iowa School for the Deaf are expressing concerns about what government reorganization means for the future of the school.

As lawmakers begin poring over Gov. Kim Reynolds’ 1,500-page bill aimed at overhauling the structure of Iowa’s state government, some parents and staff at the Iowa School for the Deaf are expressing concerns about what the bill would mean for the future of the school and the Deaf community.

The school, which is in Council Bluffs and serves students who are deaf or hard of hearing, has been under the umbrella of the Iowa Board of Regents since 1953. Reynolds is proposing moving oversight of the school into the Iowa Department of Education.

Her bill also proposes repealing a section of Iowa law that prohibits the closure of the Iowa School for the Deaf unless the legislature approves it.

Sarah Young Bear-Brown went to ISD as a child, and now, her 6-year-old daughter is a student there. She said the state provided a one-year plan to keep funding the school, but she’s scared about what will happen after that.

“I don’t want to see another school close,” she said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “I do not want to see that. We need to keep the Iowa School for the Deaf open.”

Some states have closed their schools for the deaf, including Nebraska in 1998.

“There are no plans to close the Iowa School for the Deaf or make operational changes,” Reynolds’ Deputy Communications Director Kollin Crompton said in a statement Friday. “The school provides important services for Iowa families, and that will continue as it does now.”

Young Bear-Brown said her daughter started out going to a regular public school with the help of an interpreter, but she was isolated, deprived of language, and she wouldn’t sign at home.

“Once she went to the Iowa School for the Deaf, oh man, she made such a big change,” Young Bear-Brown said. “She was happy. She was glowing. She was communicating, signing. I just see that big change in her life, and others don’t see that. I want that to happen for other deaf children in Iowa.”

Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, who represents the district that contains ISD, said he is still reviewing the bill and talking with stakeholders. He said it could make sense to put the school under the Department of Education because both are for K-12 education, while the Board of Regents mostly deals with public universities.

But he said he would be concerned with repealing the requirement for the legislature to authorize the closure of ISD.

“I think that a statewide school such as that—the legislature should have the opportunity to weigh in,” Siegrist said. “It shouldn’t be a unilateral executive decision. But we’ll take a look at that, too.”

He said there have been on-and-off discussions over the years about closing ISD. But he said the state has to provide services for deaf children and help prepare them for the future.

“I think that the School for the Deaf has done a really, really good job of providing services for those kids, so I don’t know that we should entertain closing it,” Siegrist said.

ISD Superintendent John Cool said while the Department of Education has expressed support for the school, he’s not sure what the long-term implications are of the governor’s bill.

“I’m working very hard with all of the staff and the students to assure them that, think positively. That this is going to be okay,” Cool said.

He said state leaders have assured him there won’t be layoffs as a result of the move to the DOE.

Renca Dunn, the ISD cheerleading coach, said through an ASL interpreter that the Iowa School for the Deaf is an important part of Deaf culture. And she said lawmakers and state leaders should listen to the Deaf community and do what’s best for the children, not what’s best for the legislature or administrators.

“Our voice was taken away for thousands of years,” Dunn said. “We cannot allow that to happen now. It’s 2023. Let our voices be heard.”

Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired would also be moved into the Department of Education under this bill. State lawmakers have begun reading through Reynolds’ government reorganization bill, and they plan to hold multiple public hearings on the bill in the coming weeks.

Amanda Gallant interpreted IPR’s interviews with Sarah Young Bear-Brown and Renca Dunn.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter