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July 17, 2003

Overhaul of school for deaf shrinking

From: Oregonian, OR - Jul 17, 2003


VANCOUVER -- The Washington School for the Deaf is proposing an ambitious building plan to the city, but a school administrator acknowledges that the plan, initiated in better times, is likely to be scaled back.

The 10-year, $28 million plan that the city will review in August likely will be whittled back because legislators so far have been reluctant to finance the school's venture, said John Davis, the school's interim superintendent,

Redesigning the plan could cause administrators to re-examine the school's future growth and purpose.

As it stands, the proposed master plan calls for the demolition and reconstruction of up to eight of the campus's 12 structures, including the elementary and high school buildings.

It also includes redevelopment of the campus with new instructional and support facilities available to serve 220 K-12 students by 2007, and potentially 300 students in the future.

But even Davis acknowledges that these numbers may be too high.

"The Legislature feels that -- because we serve 105 students now -- that trends show our service numbers going down," Davis said. "Perhaps that number is too big."

The building plan was initiated with state money four years ago, when economic times and the school's fortunes were much better.

In those four years, the school's enrollment has dropped from 171 to 105, and the school has been embroiled in controversy about allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Davis is quick to add that the deaf school has an important mission in serving the state's deaf population and that, "in some form, it must continue, and even expand, its services," he said.

Davis estimates that about 1,400 deaf students are being served by their local public school districts. The state deaf school should collaborate more with these districts to provide assistance and outreach programs, he said.

"In the months ahead, we're going to have to revisit where the school will go in its service," Davis said.

The school could create more satellite programs, with classes conducted through satellite telecameras, for example. It also could be a center for training curriculum for teachers statewide and increase its role as an American Sign Language training center.

"That is going to be the major goal of the new superintendent," Davis said. "To figure out what is the future of the school."

Davis began serving as the school's interim superintendent in February, after Leonard E. Aron resigned amid controversy. Five candidates interviewed for the position in June, and the school is awaiting word from Gov. Gary Locke, who has the final say on the school's new chief.

Davis said the Legislature's reluctance to fund construction projects at the school stems partly from the poor economy, but he also blames the recent controversy for tainting the school's image among politicians.

Allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse became public in August 1999. Following a series of lawsuits, investigations, studies and reports, a five-member panel appointed by Locke questioned whether the school was capable of providing a safe environment for students.

Aron resigned after receiving a vote of no confidence from the school's board.

"Like any crisis, it hangs over the institution for a while," Davis said. "It clouds and shadows everything else the school does."

Davis, who has been in education for 30 years and previously was the Hockinson School District superintendent, said Washington School for the Deaf is trying to move forward. He describes the campus as "probably the safest school I've ever worked in."

The school laid off seven employees, and hours were cut for other employees after the state reduced its funding request for the 2003-05 biennium by $386,000, Davis said. In total, the school received $15.3 million for the biennium.

In any scenario, the Vancouver campus will need a construction overhaul, as outlined in the school's master plan, said David Turpen, facilities manager.

Except for the school's three cottage-style living quarters built in 1999, the buildings were constructed between 1913 and 1974.

Among the school's older structures is a single-room brick and concrete building in the middle of the campus. It houses the boiler, a high-pressure steam contraption. The machine supplies heat to the entire campus through underground pipes.

"The boiler plant is technology from the 19th century," Davis said. "It's the exact same technology as the steam engine."

Chuck McCarthy, business manager, said the school spends up to $200,000 a year running the central boiler. With newer, smaller and energy-efficient heating plans, the cost could be cut in half, he said.

The school is expected to present the master facilities plan to the city in a land-use hearing in August. Jason Begay: 360-896-5719 or 503-294-5900;

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