After a 30-year stint at a specialized school for children and adults with severe disabilities, teacher Susan McPhail is wondering whether she will have a job after recovering from an upcoming knee surgery.
The Stovall School at the North Mississippi Regional Center, one of the state’s five regional intellectual and developmental disability programs, could be another casualty of the $14.4 million in budget cuts to the Department of Mental Health this fiscal year, according to employees and community members. Elimination of an Early Intervention Program, which provided evaluations and therapeutic services to some 350 infants and children under three years old and employed three people, has already been announced.
McPhail said she and other staff members at Stovall were told in a May 16 meeting with administrators that it is possible the school would be shut down altogether due to budget cuts.
“We were all kind of in shock,” she recalled. “I asked the question: ‘You said it was possible our program would be shutting down. Is it probable?’ And they looked right at me and said yes.”
McPhail said North Mississippi Regional Center director Edith Hayles attended the meeting.
All of the 68 students who attend the Stovall School live on the NMRC campus. At Stovall, they learn life skills ranging from managing money in one of the more traditional classrooms to putting away groceries and doing laundry in a classroom featuring a model apartment. While there are some students whose disabilities are so profound they will never be able to leave NMRC, the goal for other students is to enable them to live a more independent life at home.
Hayles directed questions from Mississippi Today to B.J. Davis, director of public information and volunteers at North Mississippi Regional Center, who said no final decisions about the school have been made as of Thursday.
“NMRC will continue to meet the needs of the individuals we serve and provide the supports required so they can maintain their highest level of independence. However, how the budget will impact any specific NMRC program such as Stovall school has yet to be determined,” Davis said in an emailed response.
“Currently, the Stovall School serves approximately 68 clients. However, their NMRC services and supports would be continued with a restructuring of the program but without a certified school, as there are only four students under 21 (years old)” at the school, Davis said.
Federal law only requires special education students under 21 to be taught by certified teachers.
But McPhail worries about the quality of services provided by individuals without the credentials she and the other certified teachers have. She also has concerns about the transition the students will undergo while the school is being closed or restructured.
“All of us are concerned about what’s going to happen with quality programming. We were trained to do it, we went to college to learn how to provide quality assessments, tools, testing measures and programming for those things that we identify as needs …” she explained, noting that what makes the Stovall School special is its ability to tailor instruction and services to each individual.
“And the time it takes to close this building down, to shut it down and then restructure it and reopen it and figure out who’s going to be bringing them and who’s going to be working with them — that concerns me,” she continued. “They’re going to go from going to school every day to staying in their cottages everyday. … As the parent of a child with autism, I can tell you that those people that we serve that have that diagnoses of autism, they need the structure.”
William Dunn, the parent of a child who lives in a community home at NMRC and a member of the Friends of North Mississippi Regional Center, said he had a similar impression of the fate of the school after a recent Friends of NMRC meeting with Hayles and other officials.
“She (Hayles) went over the budget cuts and the possible effects that it might have on NMRC. And she told this group that Stovall was probably going to be eliminated,” Dunn recalled. ” … She was very emotional about it.”
McPhail, who is eligible to retire, says she feels luckier than most of her colleagues who will have to find other employment or accept a lesser-paying job such as a direct-care worker at NMRC.
Stovall School currently has 20 staff members, Davis said, but she did not immediately know how a restructuring or elimination of the school might affect them.
McPhail feels proud of the work she and others have done over the past 30 years, most notably providing children and adults with the skills to leave the NMRC campus and live more independent lives.
“One of my favorite guys (a former student) is working out at Home Depot. I go out there and see him and we talk, and it’s just a really, really good feeling,” she said.