Saturday, November 16, 1985
Cedar Rapids Gazette
Saturday, November 16, 1985
BRAILLE SCHOOL MAY GIVE WAY TO PRISON
By Judy Daubenmier
DES MOINES -— Gov. Terry Branstad is studying a plan to close the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton and tum the facility into a prison housing 200 drunken drivers, The Gazette has learned.
An aide to Branstad said Friday the plan would include moving the 63 blind students now at Vinton to the Iowa School for the Deaf at Council Bluffs.
Aide David Roederer said that while the plan is still just in the discussion stages, "I think that it’s a distinct possibility . . . . We have instructed Hal Farrier (director of the Iowa Department of Corrections) and the board of regents to get together and to look at that possibility?’
The consolidation of the two specialty schools would close an institution that has existed since at least 1860 and could cost the Vinton community more than 100 full and part-time jobs.
IBSSS Superintendent Richard DeMott said in a telephone interview that the community is "very concerned" about the institution’s future.
"There have been an awful lot of rumors here,” he said.
DeMott said he has not yet been consulted about the proposal.
The board of regents at its meeting next week is expected to name a committee to study the proposal.
The regents had been known to be studying a recommendation to combine the schools for the deaf and blind and transfer responsibility for them to the Iowa Department of Public Instruction as part of Branstad’s mandate to reorganize and streamline state government.
But Regents Deputy Executive Secretary Robert Barak said Branstad last week asked them to study conversion of the facility into a drunken driving prison as well.
Roederer said the Vinton school’s per pupil costs of about $40,000 are one of the concerns of those studying its future.
MEANWHILE, The idea of a separate facility for drunken drivers has gained momentum in recent months as the state’s tougher laws on intoxicated drivers have brought more convictions. As a result of already-crowded conditions in state prisons, many drunken drivers sentenced to prison are having to be paroled after serving only a month behind bars.
Drunken drivers are now housed with the state’s general prison population.
Roederer said the facility contemplated would be a minimum security institution “or less . . . . We’re not talking about bars and fences and everything else.”
The typical inmate would serve six months at the institution, allowing the facility to handle 400 in a year.
During their stay, they would be given intensive alcoholism and substance abuse treatment as well as placed in work programs in Vinton or other communities such as Cedar Rapids, he said.
Most would be serving time for their second or third drunken driving conviction, but Roederer said such individuals would generally have had previous arrests for drunken driving as well which were plea bargained down to lesser offenses or disposed of in ways other than conviction.
He said the presence of 200 drunken drivers would pose “very little” of a security threat to the community.
I don’t have estimates yet of what the savings would be from combining the two specialty schools.
While Roederer said establishing a separate facility for drunken drivers is not a "foregone conclusion,” a remodeled facility would likely have to be used rather than a new one.
"People have been talking about building a new facility here, there and everywhere, but the way the economy is, building a new facility is a possibility that is not too great,” he said.
Roederer said Branstad’s preference is that prisoners in a separate drunken driving facility not be counted under the state’s prison population cap.
THE PROPOSAL, which needs legislative approval, is likely to be controversial. The head of a legislative committee studying a separate facility, Rep. Gary Sherzan, D-Des Moines, hadn’t heard previously of the plan to convert the Vinton school to a drunken driving prison.
He said his preference for offenders that haven’t injured anyone is still community-based treatment.
7 Surveys are also being taken of the state’s four mental health institutes to see if extra space in any of them could be used for drunken drivers, Roederer said. But under that scenario, none of the MHI’s would be closed, he said.
The governor’s office has been receiving a small number of telephone calls and letters from Vinton residents about the possible closing of the school, and Roederer said reaction has been mixed.
“They realize the state has to cut back but they’re concerned about the jobs. If another facility is located there, that probably negates some of their concerns,” he said.
“We have had a call from one person who said he really hated to lose it but he realized the government has to be downsized. I think people have been realistic.”
The school for the blind is one of the oldest educational institutions in the state, with its main building dating to the early 1860s.
The campus, which consists of eight buildings on 55 acres in the city of Vinton, has had a peak enrollment of about 170 students.
In recent years, as educational philosophies have changed, enrollment has dropped to 63 students ranging from preschool-age to 21.
DeMott said most residents now the community would experience a net loss of 103 full and part-time jobs.
DEMOTT SAID he doesn’t know if blind and deaf children can be served in the same facility or if money would be saved by doing so.
"If you’re talking about combining facilities, one facility would be less expensive to operate than two. There may be savings. If you are simply operating two programs on one campus, I honestly don’t know,” he said.
DeMott said the blind students and the 230 deaf students at Council Bluffs would have very different special education needs although their general education needs would be similar.
DeMott said he has received only sketchy information from state officials regarding what’s under consideration.
Asked if the state could justify maintaining the school considering its fiscal condition, he said, "That’s the question the decision-makers are going to have to ask and answer.
My primary concern is we have a responsibility to serve handicapped children and how can we do it responsibly.”