State Auditor Suggests Making Better Use of Katzenbach School for the Deaf

Advances in medicine and education have left the expansive campus with only a fraction of the students it can accommodate

Katzenbach School for the Deaf
Advances in medicine and education have left the expansive campus with only a fraction of the students it can accommodate.

Sitting on 110 acres on the outskirts of Trenton, the Marie H. Katzenbach School for the Deaf has been a staple of the state’s public education system for more than a century.

But as education for the hearing-impaired has evolved, enrollment at the state-run school has dropped dramatically — raising questions about the most efficient use for the campus, and its more than two dozen buildings.

The Office of the State Auditor, an arm of the Legislature, issued a report last month on the school’s finances. As is typical, many of its findings dealt with accounts payable and inventory control.

What was out of the ordinary was the agency’s final recommendation, urging the state to take a hard look at the [link: Katzenbach campus] on Sullivan Way to decide if the property is being used effectively.

The school currently houses 160 students, barely a quarter of its peak enrollment of over 600.

“We recommend that the Department implement a plan that is both cost-effective and provides the flexibility to efficiently meet the future needs of the school’s declining population,” the report read. “A change of location should be considered.”

This is not the first time the use of the campus has come under scrutiny. Changes in medical technology and instruction for the hearing impaired have moved many students into the mainstream.

A response attached to the audit from state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said he agreed with the recommendation, adding that the department was already studying a range of cost savings.

He wouldn’t say much more in an interview on Friday, although he did note that he came away from his visits to Katzenbach with a positive impression of the school’s programs.

“I have visited the school twice, and I was left very impressed with the high quality of the programs there,” he said.

The school’s budget in 2012 was $16.6 million, the bulk of it paid by the local school districts from which the students are drawn. The state contributed $3.6 million. But the audit said that enrollment has dropped about 17 percent in the past three years, while expenses have climbed by about 9 percent over the same period.

It’s a familiar refrain to Richard Bozza, who was the school’s executive director from 1985 to 1989. Now executive director of the state’s superintendents association, Bozza said when he took the helm at Katzenbach enrollment was twice what it is now. Still there were similar discussions underway. One proposal suggested sharing the campus with other agencies — including the state police.

In the meantime, the buildings have only gotten older, with some of the dormitory buildings now empty for more than a decade. Others are in drastic need of repair and renovation. An energy audit has been started.

“The school remains a great function for the state and has made a really big difference in those children’s lives,” Bozza said. “But this is long overdue. It doesn’t mean the program should have to leave, but maybe some other uses could be considered.”

Bozza added that whenever other options are discussed, there was often pushback from the families of current and former students.

“But even back then, they were coming around in seeing that it is compatible with ultimately saving the school,” Bozza said.

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