Maryland School for the Blind in turmoil Staffing upheavals, fiscal woes trouble once-proud program

April 17, 1995|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

The Maryland School for the Blind, which has endured for more than a century as a national model in the education of blind and multidisabled children, is facing troubled times.

Shrinking state support, a bitter staff shake-up and questions about financial management have critics wondering if the school still can provide the quality care and education that have been its hallmark.

From its idyllic setting on an Overlea tract dotted with woods and a stream, and until early in this century at sites in Baltimore, the landmark school has sent thousands of blind and disabled children on to productive lives.

But now, even its staunchest supporters concede that all is not well. "No doubt about it," said board Chairman Harry F. Wright Jr. "This is the toughest time in the school's history."

Among the issues:

* In 1991 the state cut more than $300,000 from the school's allocation. MSB depends on the state for 85 percent of its $12.8 million annual budget, and state funding is still below 1991 levels. The school has been unable to make up the difference from private sources. As a result, officials have secretly discussed selling or leasing some of the school's property, 22 buildings on 95 acres.

* On July 1, the school's five pro- gram directors -- who managed day-to-day operations and planned programs -- were fired. Two members of the school's board of directors resigned in protest and, eventually, 40 other staff members quit or saw their positions abolished. As a result of the brain drain, many parents now say their children's education is suffering.

* While school officials were lobbying in Annapolis to prevent further budget cuts, MSB President Louis M. Tutt ordered a midsized luxury car and had $35,000 worth of renovations done on his campus residence -- including new wallpaper and carpeting.

* A member of the General Assembly's Joint Budget and Audit Committee has called for his panel to investigate MSB's budget. Sen. John J. Hafer, a Republican representing Allegany and Garrett counties, said school officials have not satisfactorily answered questions raised in a critical 1992 state audit.

Among the unresolved issues from the audit is the school's inability to account satisfactorily for more than $7 million in salaries and wages.

"I'm sensing the Maryland School for the Blind has a board of directors that is operating with a lot of latitude and without a lot of oversight," Mr. Hafer said.

The school's defenders say the disputes are the consequence of making hard decisions in a harsh financial climate.

"Lou Tutt had the guts to do what a corporate chief has to do," said Bro Tubman, who served on the MSB board from 1971 to 1990. "He took steps, as unpleasant as they might be. People who do that are often unpopular."

For his part, Mr. Tutt says the school's ability to educate its 190 resident and 200 off-campus students has not been damaged. Five years ago a national council that accredits schools for the blind every five years gave the school an excellent rating. However, that was before the reorganization and the audit.

'Confidence is coming back'

"We had some problems with the restructuring initially," he said, "but through intervention . . . visits [by parents to the school] and other steps we have taken, that confidence is coming back."

School officials say they are beefing up their efforts to raise private funds and have hired a full-time development director. They say teams have been established to communicate more effectively between the administration and staff.

Said Jeff Valentine, head of a parents' advisory council and a critic of the administration who was elected to the school's board in January: "There were cliques, it was like a family." He added: "Now we are making adjustments to survive. We have to become less dependent on state dollars and increase our

fund-raising efforts."

And, he said, "the staff has to trust their bosses."

Critics say a sea change at MSB occurred in 1990, when Mr. Tutt was named superintendent after nine years in a similar post at the Missouri School for the Blind. He began a series of shake-ups and firings that left many longtime staff members bewildered and angry. Last year, Mr. Tutt was promoted to the new position of president, while Richard M. DeMott, a senior administrator at MSB since 1987, became superintendent.

Many who work at MSB describe an atmosphere of fear that grew after Mr. Tutt's arrival. In an employee poll taken by the administration, one said the school is "run as a dictatorship hierarchy."

Mary Lou Lanham of Waldorf in Charles County said she and her husband, Donald, watched their daughter Jessica, now 9, flourish in MSB's outreach program under two of MSB's fired directors, Dennis Duda and Suzanne Wayson.

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