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October 31, 2003

Va. panel: Close both deaf/blind schools

From: Hampton Roads Daily Press, VA - Oct 31, 2003

Task force backs new building 7-5

By Hugh Lessig
Daily Press

October 31, 2003

RICHMOND -- Virginia should close its historic schools in Hampton and Staunton that serve special-needs kids and build a modern campus elsewhere because it makes economic and educational sense, a task force narrowly decided Thursday.

That recommendation will go to Gov. Mark R. Warner and the General Assembly, which formed the task force in hopes of jump-starting a debate that has dragged on for decades without resolution.

The task force's recommendation doesn't guarantee the two schools will close, nor does it recommend where a new campus should be built to serve deaf, blind and multi-disabled children.

But it will frame the issue when the General Assembly convenes in January.

A bare majority - seven of the 12 members - said they were convinced a modern campus would save money in the long run. Newer buildings would cost less to maintain, overhead would be less expensive with one school instead of two, and the state could concentrate its money on a single school, putting together the best programs and teaching tools.

Keeping both schools, they reasoned, would continue to be inefficient, spreading scarce taxpayers' money over two campuses that together serve roughly 200 students with combined budgets of about $14 million.

"Neither school fit the bill," said David Young of Norfolk, the parent of a child at the Hampton school who had argued forcefully for a new campus.

Besides parents, the 12-member task force consisted of education officials, the superintendents of both schools, state experts in caring for the deaf and blind and two state senators, including the retiring Sen. W. Henry Maxwell of Newport News.

Just as lawmakers and educators have struggled for years, the task force nearly failed to reach a consensus after meeting through the summer and into the fall.

Five of the 12 members wanted to keep both schools, while changing the focus of each campus.

That option won over the two school superintendents as well as both lawmakers: Maxwell and Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr., who represents the Staunton area.

Hanger said keeping both schools open was more politically doable for the General Assembly, where lawmakers tend to defend their own districts. He also thought both schools had carved out separate purposes, so it made sense to keep both.

He stressed that even though the task force came up with a recommendation, the final decision is up to Richmond.

"I think it's a legitimate outcome for the situation here," he said. "But I would be quick to point out to all the interested parties . . . that this really is not an imminent action. We're just moving in the process here."

At issue are two campuses with similar-sounding names that are very different in purpose, history and even physical appearance.

The Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind at Staunton traces its roots to 1839. Its stately campus, dotted with brick building and white columns, offers a pleasant, rural community setting for deaf and blind students to pursue a traditional education.

The Virginia School for the Deaf, Blind and Multi-Disabled at Hampton was founded in 1906 as a place for African-Americans who could not attend Staunton. Years later, the Hampton school gradually switched its focus from the traditional deaf or blind student to those with multiple disabilities, such as cerebral palsy.

Because it has more multiple-disabled students, the Hampton curriculum is geared toward functional skills that will allow its graduates to get along in everyday life, as opposed the academic curriculum of the Staunton school.

The Hampton school is in an urban setting, off Shell Road. Its campus is flat - better for its students with wheelchairs - while the Staunton campus is hilly. That's not as much of an issue for Staunton students, though, because it doesn't have a multi-disabled population.

The task force dissected these differences over the course of several meetings. Late Thursday afternoon, it finally junked the idea of closing one school and keeping the other open, an option that members agreed sparked hard feelings at both schools.

It finally came down to two choices: keep both schools, or close both.

The seven-member majority included both parent representatives: Young and Lisa Surber of Waynesboro, whose 18-year-old deaf son attends the Staunton school.

Like many parents, she was loyal to her home school and defended the Staunton campus. But as the debate progressed, she said she came to realize that a single school would offer the best educational opportunity for the children.

"The only way these kids will have the money for the things they need is with a new facility," she said.

Maxwell objected to the new campus option because he said there wasn't enough information about cost. But the task force chairman, Scott Goodman, said those who wanted to keep both campuses hadn't articulated a clear vision of how each campus would look, or which functions would go where.

Goodman, a member of the Virginia Board of Education, said the task force did a commendable job, given that the General Assembly has failed to resolve the issue.

"I'm happy to get seven out of 12, happy beyond all imagination," he said later. "It's the best solution on the merits."

Copyright ©2003 The Daily Press