Resignations, departures at South Dakota School for the Blind: Can the institution be turned around?

After the departure of longtime superintendent Marje Kaiser and the hiring of Dan Trefz, who recently resigned, advocates say the specialty school needs help from lawmakers to reach its past heights.

The newly constructed campus of the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Aberdeen.
Courtesy of South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

ABERDEEN, S.D. — Taylor Barbato’s 3-year-old daughter, Nora, was born with a visual impairment disorder.

As Barbato began the process of choosing between preschool options last summer, she decided on enrolling Nora in the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, located in her hometown of Aberdeen.

On Jan. 16, after months of scratching and clawing from Barbato to enroll her daughter in the state-funded specialty school designed to educate blind and low-vision students, Nora finally began her first four-day week at the school.

The saga, according to Barbato and several other parents, advocates and former educators at the school, shines a light on some of the issues in the school — opaque waitlists for qualified students, staffing shortages and a relatively new leader at the center, Dan Trefz, who they claim often attempted to act unilaterally in a school that prided itself on collaboration.

In Barbato’s case, she recalls an Individual Education Plan meeting — which brings together the student, parents, educators and administrators to tailor educational plans to individual needs — earlier this year, where Trefz was insistent that Barbato’s daughter should fit all of her school work into two days each week, an arrangement Barbato said left her daughter tired and overworked.


Taylor Barbato with her daughter, Nora.
Contributed: Taylor Barbato

“The entire team: the teacher, the speech therapists, the occupational therapists, physical therapists, the vision specialists and the [special education] director for the public schools were all in agreement that she needed four days a week,” Barbato said. “And he was still trying to argue with us.”

For decades, the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired has been a national leader in teaching practical skills and building community for those with visual disabilities in the state, serving full- and part-time students from pre-kindergarten through high school. The school works with about 200 students each year, including outreach programs with local school districts.

“As a freshman [in high school], I decided I wanted the extra training that the school would provide to make me independent. And those four years were very important to me. I believe that they made me a stronger person,” said Koni Sims, a 1984 graduate who has spent a career on state and national advocacy boards for the visually impaired. “There's something to be said for having that special one-on-one education and peer support.”

Yet parents, advocates and some recently departed educators say the past two years have seen an unraveling of that promise, beginning with the departure of longtime superintendent Marje Kaiser and the hiring of Trefz, who previously served as superintendent of the Miller school system and has little background in special education.

Under Trefz, parents say, changes are being made to Individual Education Plans without proper parent or educator input; students with qualifying disabilities are being turned away or put on previously unheard-of waitlists; and some long-tenured educators are leaving and being replaced with less-than-qualified alternatives.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of heartbreak at that school,” said Krystal Stuwe, a leading voice among concerned parents whose son was born with cortical visual impairment, optic nerve atrophy and nystagmus. “And it was like watching this well-oiled machine completely fall apart. It was just very devastating to watch.”

In an email to Forum News Service, a spokesperson for the South Dakota Board of Regents did not comment on several of these concerns, “given the confidential nature of personnel and student information.” The board also did not respond to a request to discuss these allegations with Trefz.

Barbato said Brian Maher, the executive director of the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public institutions of higher education and the specialty schools for the deaf and blind, was instrumental in helping her get past these roadblocks and enroll her daughter in school.


And while Maher still maintains a positive outlook, he did say it was possible that not every issue at the school has made it up the chain of command on the board.

“I have heard some dissatisfaction,” Maher said. “So hopefully this is an opportunity for change. And hopefully, that change is a change that will serve everybody well.”

That view is generally shared among advocates — with the resignation of Trefz last month and the end of his tenure on June 30 this year, a group of invested parties says there may be only one chance to right the school’s trajectory.

They’re working with lawmakers to propose sprawling legislation outlining the makeup and powers of an advisory council for the school, a transparent complaint process for parents, the qualifications of any prospective superintendent and a comprehensive set of educational opportunities for visually-impaired students.

“This would ensure that no student or family would ever have to go through what we have with our son,” Stuwe said.

Concerns center on hemorrhaging of qualified staff

Potentially even more than in the field of education as a whole, the role of qualified, knowledgeable staff is at the very center of educating blind and visually impaired students. The reason for that comes from the need for hands-on learning, an education style that’s now known as the Expanded Core Curriculum.

“For example, how do sighted individuals learn how to make toast? Well, you can show them once and they know how to do it,” said Marje Kaiser, who spent decades as superintendent of both the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the South Dakota School for the Deaf. “Blind students require much more detailed instruction, and you generalize that to everything you have to do in your day-to-day life.”

According to several parents and educators, the success of SDSBVI was rooted in a handful of specialized educators, many of whom had spent decades at the school. But, beginning with Kaiser’s retirement in 2021, those teachers began to leave.


In January 2021, Dawn LaMee, a 33-year veteran and jack-of-all-trades for the school, had her position eliminated. Two months later, Jane Mundschenk, who spent 35 years at the school as an orientation and mobility instructor and science teacher, left after a request to move to part-time work was denied.

At least five long-tenured educators have left under the 18-month tenure of Trefz. In a school with around four dozen total staff members including dormitory workers and administrators, the losses reverberate, and previously offered services begin to fall on parents and home school districts.

“The staff that make the school unique are not there,” LaMee said. “You can’t have a school for the blind if you don't have the staff that can teach blindness skills.”

Krystal Stuwe, with her son, Vincent. Stuwe has been outspoken about the negative changes at the South Dakota School for the Blind.
Jason Harward / Forum News Service

Educators and parents partially blame these losses on the leadership and the resulting school culture, leading to what parents call the illegal handling of Individual Education Plans, in which major and minor changes have been made without proper consultation of all stakeholders.

In a letter endorsed by parents of five students at the school, they wrote they “do not feel that Mr. Trefz understands the students he is servicing and it appears that the other administration staff aiding him do not have the best interest of the students or teachers in mind.”

Maher could not confirm the specific circumstances of these departures; however, he did note that retaining and hiring staff is a challenge across the institutions served by the Board of Regents.

“It’s something that we're always trying to figure out,” he said. “How do we bring in the best and the brightest? Once we get them in, how do we keep them employed?”

The final frustration from parents and advocates has been the lack of response by the Board of Regents to complaints. A handful of lengthy emails sent to the board and obtained by Forum News Service have garnered little, if any, response.


In one case, a November 2021 letter from the Dakotas chapter of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) laying out several of the concerns of parents and advocates and encouraging Trefz and the board to ”take to heart the seriousness of these concerns from professionals that have decades of service and who are truly committed to the right change and best practices.”

In a response to the letter, Nathan Lukkes, the board’s attorney, wrote in part, “my cursory review of the letter left me taken back by the nature and content of much of the correspondence, as it represents a stark contrast from what I’ve come to expect from [AER].”

At the end, he added the board would “be in touch if we have any questions or can otherwise benefit from the expertise of AER and its expansive network.” The AER says that was the final time they heard from the board.

The board also did not respond to a request for comment from Lukkes.

Trefz's resignation offers shot at righting ship

The work of compiling complaints and proposing solutions has been undertaken by a workgroup of parents, former teachers and advocates from national and regional organizations, led by Koni Sims.

"We want to get the word out, and we want to get everyone understanding the concerns and issues,” she said.

While the Board of Regents and the workgroup pushing reforms in the school are generally in agreement about the opportunity in front of the school to choose a quality superintendent and address some of the parental concerns.

However, where they potentially differ is whether structural, legal change is needed to make sure these reforms are implemented.


According to Maher, the board has begun its search for a new leader, which is not confined to South Dakota.

Several advocates told Forum News Service that turning the school around may require bringing in a leader from a national or regional board involved in educating the visually impaired. Maher said the board welcomes input on the ongoing search.

But parents want to see guardrails put in place in perpetuity, and they’ve worked to create several proposals they hope to see entertained during the legislative session.

The first would lay out the specific qualifications of any prospective superintendent, including either a credential in an area of study related to vision or experience in the field as an educator. Another would create an advisory council made of nine members — three blind or visually impaired, three professionals in the field and three parents with children who are blind or visually-impaired — with oversight on senior hiring decisions and the credentialing of educators.

The workgroup said its inspiration for many of these points came from state law in Texas , which the group believes has “excellent protections for students with blindness and visual impairments.”

One legislator who the parents have been in contact with is Rep. Scott Moore, a Republican from Ipswich who sits on the House Education Committee. He said he specifically sees merit in the idea of an oversight council.

“I think whenever you can bring control to a more local level, that’s a good thing,” Moore said.

Other proposals include a detailed set of requirements for both home school districts and SDSBVI itself, as well as a way for parental complaints to be heard by the Department of Education and mediated according to the legally-defined rights for due process.


Maher, the head of the Board of Regents, said he was aware of some of these requests but needed to study them further, though he felt that the supposedly unresponsive complaint process could be solved by better communication on specific issues and was unsure of what the role of the advisory council.

Still, he felt now was the right time to have these sorts of discussions.

“We're changing superintendents, should there also be other policy and procedure changes as well?” Maher said. “I think this is a good time for us to look at all of those things.”

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“When we first moved here, people probably figured we were a little different," Rudy Borntreger, the bishop in the small community near Tripp, said. "And I guess we are a little different."

Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or

Jason Harward covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at
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