School has 140 years of teaching deaf, blind students

The campus of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. Bill Vogrin / The Gazette

Nancy Benham, assistant superintendent for program services at the New York State School for the Deaf in Rome, N.Y., has been named the next superintendent of the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind.

The board of trustees voted 6-1 Thursday to hire Benham.

Board member Walter Vonfeldt, who’s deaf, cast the opposing vote. He indicated afterward that he would not comment on the reason for his vote.

Several members of the deaf community have opposed Benham being named the sole finalist and have raised other issues, including the board not responding to their letters.

“We feel there’s a lack of transparency and little concern for the deaf community,” Vance Youngs, president of the Colorado Association of the Deaf, told the board through an interpreter.

“The deaf community already is very vulnerable … and we want it better. The community feels this procedure needs to be of us and by us.”

Board member Teresa Raiford said she was impressed by Benham, one of four candidates interviewed by the board and two committees two weeks ago.

“Her heart for the kids was amazing, and her plan moving forward to learn about the blind students and their needs was well thought-out,” she said.

Benham, who earned her doctoral degree in educational administration and supervision from the University of Southern Mississippi and who can hear, has worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing students for years, according to her application. But she has no experience working with blind or visually impaired students.

Her plan includes furthering her education “to learn what she needed to learn to govern a blind school as well,” Raiford said. “We feel she will take the time and do the due diligence to provide governance for the blind.”

She will start July 1, replacing Carol Hilty, who’s retiring after serving as superintendent for 15 years, plus 15 as teacher and principal.

The position pays $150,000 plus benefits.

Her current school district serves 60 students; the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind has about 210 student on campus daily, including boarders, and helps 700 statewide through outreach programs.

The process to choose the next leader of the Colorado Springs-based, state- funded school began last spring and was extensive, board member Nancy Brown said.

“It’s been a long journey,” Brown said. “We had several stakeholder meetings to be inclusive and transparent throughout the process.”

After a lively discussion last year, the board nailed down what qualifications members wanted in a new superintendent, then hired a search firm, conducted an online survey and held several meetings with parents, staff and the community.

Twenty-seven completed applications were narrowed to nine and then four.

The board and two committees of staff, students, parents and community members interviewed the four candidates, whom the board did not publicly name, and chose Benham after getting feedback from the groups, Brown said.

“We had 35 or 40 people participating in these interviews in some capacity,” she said.

Although members of the deaf community expressed their opinions and feelings directly to the board repeatedly, they felt they were not heard, said Ida Wilding, a deaf professor from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and president of the Colorado chapter of the American Sign Language Teachers Association.

Many wanted the school to hire a deaf superintendent, saying doing so would best serve the students.

Kevin Harrer, who is deaf and a former student and teacher at the school, said he’s not concerned that Benham is not deaf or hard of hearing.

“For me, it matters more that she is highly qualified and provides good leadership and gets along with everyone,” he said while signing.

But Harrer said he doesn’t think she was the most qualified candidate, and said some issues in her background are concerning. He called on the board to launch a second search, as the board did 15 years ago when Hilty was hired as superintendent.

Board member Andy McElhaney said negative comments made about Benham were “unsubstantiated and anonymous.”

“The report we received from the search firm was glowing,” he said. “They checked eight different references, and they were all supportive and complimentary.”

McElhaney said when he posed the question to Benham, “Why should we hire you?” she replied, “Because I have passion.”

“Clearly, she does,” McElhaney said.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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