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June 1, 2003

An end to enmity over fate of similar schools?

From: Hampton Roads Daily Press, VA - Jun 1, 2003

This week, a group of educators, state officials and lawmakers will begin to dissect a politically thorny question that has bedeviled the Peninsula for at least 20 years.

What should happen to the Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled at Hampton?

The state's indecision has hurt both the Hampton school and its counterpart, the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind in Staunton. It has left parents in limbo - and these are parents who have enough to deal with already. It has hurt teacher recruitment, and good teachers are hard to find.

Here's the problem, for those of you who haven't been following this issue: Many people think Virginia doesn't need two such schools.

Lawmakers have tried to ram through various attempts to close the Hampton school, and it has pitted the Staunton and Hampton-area delegations against each other.

So now there's another task force. Will this group actually solve the problem? Some think so.

It includes two lawmakers who not long ago were on opposite sides of the issue: the retiring Sen. W. Henry Maxwell of Newport News - whose district includes a part of Hampton - and Sen. Emmett Hanger of Augusta County, who represents Staunton.

Back in 1996, Hanger wanted to close the Hampton school and keep Staunton open. Maxwell opposed that effort, and Hanger's bill went down in the Senate, but just barely.

Hanger said things have changed since 1996. Now he isn't sure Hampton should close at all. The task force - which meets over two days this week - doesn't have to recommend a closure.

"I'm not sure that actually needs to happen," Hanger said last week. "From a cost-savings standpoint, and for the benefit of certain students, we may need to do that."

Or not. The problem is, the two schools sound similar in title, but there are key differences. Staunton has the traditional deaf and blind students, and its curriculum tracks the Standards of Learning. The Hampton school has a multi-disabled student population plus deaf and blind kids, and its curriculum is geared more toward vocational and life skills.

Hanger will be the commencement speaker at the Staunton school, and he certainly supports its mission. But for someone who once fought to close Hampton, he now sounds like he's trying to keep an open mind.

"I'm not sure at this moment where this is going to lead us," he said. "I think our primary focus needs to be not the politics of the location, but rather how we can deliver services in a cost-effective manner."

We're not expecting big news from the task force this week. It plans to get organized, set a schedule, review past studies and maybe discuss some topics for focus groups. But if it can recommend a viable solution, it will have made up for years and years of fruitless talks.

Copyright ©2003 The Daily Press