Members of Faribault institution's deaf community want to be heard

On a cold, windy, rainy Monday morning, a few dozen people lined up at two locations on Sixth Avenue in Faribault. They proudly held up colorful signs with bold messages. They were unified and had plenty to say.

And yet, it was quiet.

“I’m a mother of four − three attend [Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf],” Shanada Schwartz wrote on a pad of paper, struggling a bit with the cold and the wind. “We are here to let the School Board know we want/demand a deaf superintendent.”

Schwartz, like her brother Robin Johnson beside her and all the others taking part in the rally, is deaf and/or hard of hearing. The group was asking, encouraging, demanding that Minnesota State Academy board members hire a new superintendent, who identifies with, or at least understands, the deaf community.

MSA is searching for a new superintendent for both MSAD and the academy for the blind (MSAB) in Faribault. There are currently two deaf candidates, who work at other state-run schools (like those of MSA), and one hearing candidate, who works at a charter school.

The state-run academies need a new leader after former Superintendent Brad Harper resigned in December. Harper did not provide a reason for his resignation at the time, but in an American Sign Language video posted to the ralliers’ Facebook page (MSAD Supt. Rally), group organizer and MSAD teacher Chet Virnig said the former superintendent was not a popular figure at the deaf school.

“Last fall-winter, our MSAD Superintendent Brad Harper experienced increasing pressure from the MSAD community to improve,” Virnig signed. “We were not satisfied with his performance, and he decided to resign.”

Now, MSAD teachers, staff and community members are looking to avoid more of the same.

They want the MSA School Board to hire one of the two deaf candidates, Bradley Porche and Terrence Wilding, who have experience in state-run institutions, working with deaf students, and some with blind students. The third candidate, Nicole Musolf, is hearing and does not have experience with deaf or blind students, though she does have 10 years education experience and a superintendent license.

“[Porche and Wilding] are currently working at a deaf state school, similar to our school now. There’s a big difference to public schools,” Chet Virnig said in a phone conversation interpreted by Sorenson VRS. “[Musolf] has no knowledge of deaf education, blind education.”

In all, about 30 people showed up for the rally on Monday.The group’s Facebook page, meanwhile, has over 1,000 members in less than a week of operation. Mostly all of the rally-goers were directly affiliated with MSAD and all were part of the deaf community.

“We want MSA to have the best candidate with deaf education knowledge to run the schools,” wrote Lloyd Ballinger, a member of the Minnesota Commission of Deaf, Deaf Blind and Hard of Hearing.

“We want to see the future of MSA grow, so someone who is knowledgeable of deaf education and blind education can make that happen,” said Meghan Laughlin, a 2009 graduate of MSAD.

One size doesn’t

always fit all

Any superintendent that comes in will have more than just deaf education to understand and work on. They’ll also have a blind school to run.

“I think it’s very difficult that you would have expertise in both areas. We didn’t have any applicants that had managed schools for deaf and blind like ours,” said interim MSA Superintendent Dr. Robert Stepaniak, who took over when Harper left in the winter.

The interim leader was honest and direct in his thoughts on the rally from the MSAD community. While he doesn’t see any reason the future superintendent can’t be deaf, he doesn’t see any reason they need to be either.

“Whoever takes over has to manage both individual schools and the overall academies,” he said. “It’s difficult for me to support a claim that it has to be a deaf superintendent. [The School Board] wants a person with the right leadership skills and experiences.”

There’s no question that the rally on Monday centered around deaf education and leaders for the deaf community, which makes sense since it was members of said community rallying. However, Virnig said the new superintendent doesn’t need to be deaf. They just need to understand deaf education.

“We would accept the hire of a hearing candidate if they understood the deaf culture,” he said. “The deaf community has its own culture and language. It’s hard to understand unless you submerge yourself in it.”

Sprinkled throughout the many posts on the ralliers’ Facebook page, you will likely find some counterpoints from supporters or members of the blind community. They note that a deaf candidate isn’t necessarily going to have the adequate experience or skills to work with the blind community.

In fact, looking through the resumes of Porche and Wilding, one can see a deeply rooted investment in deaf education and culture, but there experience with the blind is notably less. Virnig believes, though, that their experience in deaf schools gives them a leg up on candidates with no specific deaf or blind experiences.

“We have two deaf applicants that know about deaf education,” he said. “Blind education is a little more dependent, but these two also know how to run a state school.”

MSAB Director John Davis preferred not to comment on the MSAD rally or community demands, only saying “[MSAB] is looking for someone that is qualified and ready to lead us into the future.”

The School Board will be making that decision for both schools when they hire a new superintendent. That decision might come after the final candidate, Wilding, is interviewed Monday, May 16.

Members of Faribault institution’s deaf community want to be heard

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