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June 3, 2003

Austine School rattled by broad staff layoffs

From: Brattleboro Reformer, VT - Jun 3, 2003

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- Faced with a budget deficit, the governing body for the Austine School for the Deaf made sweeping staff reductions last month.

Among those laid off were Outreach Director Mike Finneran -- the executive director of the Austine School last year -- and Janet Dickinson, who was the program manager of community services.

The move came shortly after a group of deaf community members had assembled to form "Deaf Majority Now," a group working for greater deaf representation at the school and on the board of directors of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Finneran, who is deaf, worked publicly with the group.

"I don't relish this at all," said Patrick Schrader, the center's outgoing CEO, as he discussed the layoffs. He also said such staff cuts were not unusual, noting that 30 had been made in 1996.

Schrader said he made the decisions on the basis of seniority.

"I just went down the list," he said.



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But Finneran questioned the rationale for the reductions.

"I'm not the last administrator to be hired," he said. "And Janet wasn't."

Schrader and Linda Griffin, director of finance and operational services at the center, said seniority for administrators was determined by overall tenure at Austine, not just tenure in administrative positions. That meant, Griffin said, that Brenda Seitz -- who has spent less time as an administrator than either Finneran or Dickinson -- was retained as special education director because she had accumulated more years of employment than Finneran or Dickinson.

Griffin said Finneran was hired in August 1999 and Dickinson in January 2000. She said Seitz began her job as special education director in January 2002 but has been employed by the Vermont Center -- previously as a teacher -- since August 1999. Griffin said that Seitz had also been employed at the school from 1984-92 and that those years counted toward her seniority.

Another employee whose contract was not renewed, John Smith, taught American Sign Language part-time at the school.

"Budget cuts are real," he said, in an e-mailed statement. "I understand that.

"A school for the deaf without ASL studies is like a house without windows," he continued. "Is it possible? Yes it's possible. We don't recommend such a house to anyone. Let us hope that the school will find the money."

Griffin said the school was working to fund a contract next year for Smith, who is deaf, but said one had not as yet been issued.

"We're trying to secure funding to bring that position back," she said.

Griffin noted that about 25 contracts in all were not renewed, though she added that a number of them may still be restored. She estimated that about 10 would not be renewed. She said administrators were expecting an enrollment of 42 students next year, down from 46 this year. According to Schrader, a single student could account for $50,000 to $60,000.

The move came as Finneran and other members of Deaf Majority Now were meeting with success on one of their primary objectives -- achieving a deaf majority on the center's board of trustees.

Board Chairman Dan Allen said that in the past two months five deaf members had been accepted onto the board, including three new members, and two who replaced departed members. Allen said the board held an emergency meeting to change the bylaws to enable the board to bring on more members immediately.

He said the board had been in search of more deaf members for years, but he said the work of the Deaf Majority Now group sped up the process.

"Maybe all the publicity with the DMN had a positive effect," he said. "People said, 'Now's the time to get involved.'"

Finneran said he would remain active with the group and noted the need for more deaf representation in the search for a CEO and in other decision-making processes.

He also said more visible guidelines for a deaf-friendly environment would be valuable at Austine. He said he wanted to see a balance of deaf and hearing cultures at the school, along with more conversation about what the concept of deaf culture means.

"I suggested last fall that we set up some guidelines to define what a deaf-friendly environment is about," he said. He noted, particularly the importance of signing while on campus.

© 2003 Brattleboro Reformer