Texas School for the Blind loses $1.5M in funding after accounting error

Investigations

Investigative summary:

Every year, the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired serves hundreds of some of the most vulnerable special education students across the state on its 40-acre campus in Austin. But, fewer students may benefit from the instruction there after an “accounting error” and financial oversight at the school last year resulted in a $1.5 million budget mistake. The school has done all it can to make necessary cuts, and it comes as the superintendent of 12 years is set to retire and be replaced.  

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Without hesitation, Devin Gutierrez takes a seat on the bench at the black upright piano situated in the center of the stage, standing out against a set of crimson velvet curtains. Although he sits privately in the large, empty auditorium, Gutierrez plays and sings as if each seat is occupied. This, and every private rehearsal, is an important performance.

Poised to play the instrument he’s come to know since he was just three years old, the 20-year-old singer/songwriter begins an original song he wrote just days before.

“The time has come for you to realize that you are what you believe. You can be what you want to be. Just open your eyes and see,” he sings enthusiastically. 

Gutierrez’s eyes are focused — piercing, straight ahead, never looking down, never wavering. His fingers dance across the ivory and ebony keys without a second thought, all muscle memory for the self-proclaimed up-and-coming Austin musician. 

Even from afar, you can see the way he handles the weight of the keys underneath his fingers, effortlessly bouncing from one to another. His voice is strong, full, resonant and bold. He is confident.

It’s important to mention, Gutierrez literally plays by feel. He relies on touch more than most pianists. That’s because he has bilateral optic nerve fibroplasia with septo-optic dysplasia – a condition where the optic nerves are underdeveloped. Gutierrez was born blind.

“I’m only able to perceive color in a very basic, crude way. Basically, the difference between light and dark colors,” he explained.

The fifth-year student at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, TSBVI, plays in what he refers to as “one of the best fine arts buildings in any school for the blind.” After completing high school there, he’s now part of its EXIT, or “Experiences in Transition” program. 

“Music is what keeps me sane. Music is what drives me. Music is how I interact with my world. Music is how I communicate,” Gutierrez said. “Through music, I can feel. I can be. I can channel emotion in its rawest form. It’s part of that experiential being that I am.”

Gutierrez also plays the drums and the chromatic harmonica. The instrument was originally made famous by Stevie Wonder, one of his musical inspirations, though Gutierrez will be quick to tell you that’s not because he’s blind like him.

“I like the music he writes,” he clarified and begins to list a number of people who’ve helped him get to where he is today.

“I’ve had some amazing teachers who have really encouraged my musical development and growth,” Gutierrez said, adding that the staff at TSBVI have assisted him in his personal development, too. “A million times, yes,” he responded when asked directly.

Gutierrez was referred to TSBVI after middle school in his hometown of Sweetwater, Texas, near Abilene.

“In my school district, I found they didn’t have the, necessarily, the resources to provide as much as they really needed to provide for me. They had one teacher of the visually impaired and she was a great teacher, but they didn’t really have all the equipment, all the resources, all of the training to help me,” Gutierrez said. “Math was getting complicated. All the brailling was getting complicated, and so was technology.”

That’s often the goal at TSBVI – to set up their students for real-world success. It often takes more resources to do that.

However, with a $1.5 million budget shortfall, it may have compromised that for at least some students who attend the school during part-time summer programs, along with some of the staff who assist on-campus.

A $1.5 million budget mistake

The budget shortfall wasn’t discovered until July 2018, when someone realized that a one-time sum of $1.5 million from 2010 had run out. An error occurred when TSBVI inadvertently carried forward the amount in its budget when, in reality, the source of income was no longer available.

Superintendent Bill Daugherty takes the blame for the mistake.

“It was an accounting issue with a procedure that we had in place and just financial oversight by me. It was a difficult situation for us to be in, obviously,” Daugherty explained. “I’m responsible for everything that happens at this school.”

Although Gutierrez says the school has, for the most part, been able to work around the issue so as to not affect the comprehensive programs for people who live on-campus year-round, there have been other significant impacts on-campus. Many affect part-time students, certain staff and instructors who work with the students.

In an email obtained by KXAN dated Sept. 6, 2018 from the superintendent to all staff members, Daugherty said he was “caught off guard” by the timing of the shortfall and wrote:

“As we began to finish up the last fiscal year, ending August 31, 2018, it became apparent that we might not even make payroll for the end of August without additional cash flow. We were able to secure the funds needed through the Governor’s Office and the Legislative Budget Board, but we also had to implement some immediate steps out of an abundance of caution to ensure everyone would receive their paycheck come September. This is what led to us abruptly cancel the recommended merit increases, and what led us to try and push any overtime hour payouts until September. I know this was disheartening and problematic for those who were affected by it, but it was a necessary step…” 

The superintendent says the shortfall is the result of “several factors,” including what he referred to as being “relatively flat funded in both state general revenue funds and federal grant funds for the past decade.”

He continued, in part: 

“Over that time the school has continued to significantly improve and expand its programs and services in ways that increased our value to the state, but were not always cost neutral. The costs of these improvements had not been something that I sufficiently tracked and used to evaluate the fiscal sustainability of each improvement initiative.” 

So far, cuts are being made to some summer programs – including the length of the programs and decreasing the number of students enrolled in them – which primarily impact some of the lowest-paid positions at the school, including residential instructors.

TSBVI staff most impacted by the mistake

Because TSBVI is a residential school with some students who live on campus Monday through Friday during the school week, staff members known as “residential instructors” pick up with students where the school day leaves off. These instructors work with students in dorm settings, teaching them daily living skills like cooking, cleaning and doing laundry. For older students at the school, residential instructors help them to do things like apply for college and find jobs or housing.

Due to the shortfall, these residential instructors may not get the extra hours they rely on to supplement their income, as they have in previous years.

Residential instructors like Dan Butler fall under a 9.75 month employee classification at the school since, technically, the campus is not operating 365 days per year. Working overtime, for these instructors, help makes up the salary gap of the remaining 2.25 months of the year.

“This year, we were notified that there would be no merit-based pay increases and that there would also be very limited to no opportunities for overtime, which we are reliant upon to get us through the summer months, as well as things like spring break,” Butler explained.

He says the residential instructors didn’t find out about the shortfall until the first day back to school, leaving them little room to make their own financial contingency plans.

“There is a lot of uncertainty amongst individuals here about what their next steps are,” Butler said. “We receive a lot of very specialized training to be able to do this job well and with that training, people can leave this institution and work other places and find other employment. I think a lot of people are very dedicated to our student population and it’s very admirable but, when it comes down to staying loyal to our students and continuing the work that we do here versus paying rent and eating three square meals a day, you know, those are difficult choices that people have to make.” 

Now, Butler is leading the lobbying effort this legislative session at the Capitol. Support staff at TSBVI, along with support staff at the Texas School for the Deaf, are appealing to lawmakers in hopes of obtaining additional funding for an across-the-board pay increase for these positions, as well as a guaranteed 3 percent annual cost of living pay increase.

“When you have stagnant wages for years and get no pay increase, and your rent continues to go up, and you know, you have car payments and children and things like that, it makes it incredibly burdensome for a number of our employees,” Butler added. “I would like to continue working here. I really do enjoy the work that I do here. But, if things don’t change, it’s not a long-term sustainable career, unfortunately.” 

As programs grow, money doesn’t

Superintendent Daugherty says his oversight combined with what he calls “relatively flat funding” for operational costs by the state and federal governments in recent years ultimately led to the budget situation the school is in now. 

“During that time — right or wrong — and I’m going to say right, we’ve continued to grow our programs in some ways that were budget neutral and some ways that actually had some cost associated with it,” he explained. “Had my oversight of that been better, I would have caught that earlier and we would have planned to deal with this. There would have still been difficult because if you don’t have new operating money — and everything gets more expensive to do — if you don’t have more operating money coming in from the state, you really can find yourself in a difficult situation.”

Daugherty says the state general fund money that TSBVI gets is a little over $15 million a year and the federal funds it gets is a little over $2 million a year. 

 

Over the past five school years, about 700 students have benefited from comprehensive and short-term TSBVI programs each year, including those who attend summer programs, one of the areas that will likely suffer because of the budget shortfall. More students attend summer programs, which can last between a week and five weeks, than those who are in the other two programs.

 

Daugherty also tells KXAN News the state general revenue funding is the only guaranteed amount among all the other methods of finance.

“Our school has always been very conservative about asking for additional money from the state,” Doughterty said. “This year we’ve gone in and asked to get ourselves made whole again.” 

This legislative session, TSBVI is requesting additional funding in its “exceptional item requests,” in addition to its base budget. The first priority request is an additional $1.5 million annually under general revenue operating funding. According to Daugherty, neither the House nor the Senate has included this in their preliminary budget bills.

The school’s second priority request was $641,287 per year to improve compensation for direct care employees, lsuch as residential staff, teaching assistants and nurses. The request was made in hopes of reducing turnover at TSBVI and filling “critical vacancies” on-campus. Again, at last report, neither the House nor the Senate has included this in their preliminary budget bills.

Some sources are concerned that because of the budget mistake, lawmakers will not agree to give the school additional funding this session. 

State and federal funding for the Texas School for the Deaf is largely comparable to TSBVI until the last two fiscal years wherein the School for the Deaf received significantly more funds for reported necessary school repairs. 

Since the 2011-2012 school year, about 1,000 students have benefitted from programs at the School for the Deaf each year. That is, until 2017 when summer programs were suspended due to financial constraints. That year, 767 students in all were enrolled. In 2018 however, that number increased again to 967 total enrolled students.

How and why students go to TSBVI

The Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) is not a private school. It is a large operation that is absolutely free of charge.

Students like Gutierrez are referred to TSBVI by their local educational teams within their home school districts from every corner of the state. That team is made up of both the school staff and the parents of a potential student. Referrals often occur when the team believes the child is not learning at the rate they should be learning and a consensus is made that the child needs more intensive, expert instruction. It’s seen as a learning “boot camp” or “shot in the arm” of sorts for visually impaired students. 

Once they arrive, the school immediately begins drafting a plan setting up the student for success in order to transition them back to their local school districts once they’re prepared to do so. Every one of their teachers is educated as a teacher of the visually impaired. 

Daugherty says every child who attends TSBVI receives considerably more education per day than they would as students in their home school districts.

After 12 years as superintendent at the school, Daugherty is set to retire at the end of the school year. On Thursday, the board of trustees for the school held a meeting where it chose Emily Coleman to be Daugherty’s replacement. Coleman is the current outreach director at the school. She was selected to this position last fall.

Daugherty tells KXAN he is retiring because he turns 67 this summer, his youngest child is going off to college, and, most importantly, his wife has accepted a faculty position at Texas Women’s University in Denton, beginning in August. Daugherty says it is time for him to follow his wife in the next stage of her career.

As for Gutierrez’s future, he hopes to spend one more year at TSBVI before making the transition to living on his own in Austin. 

After five years on campus, Gutierrez says he hopes there’s enough support for staff at TSBVI so the classes coming after him will receive the same education and opportunities he had there. 

“They have the drive. They have the compassion and the kindness to be able to turn this into the best school for the blind in the world,” Gutierrez said. “The only limitation is the money. If we could get rid of that one barrier, this school could flourish in so many ways.”

KXAN Photographer Richie Bowes contributed to this report.

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