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February 23, 2005

No word on fate of VSDB

From: Augusta Free Press, VA - Feb 23, 2005

In Focus

Chris Graham

State lawmakers are still working on what the next step will be for the two campuses of the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind.

"This isn't a local issue. It's a statewide issue. The issue is what is in the best interests for visually and hearing impaired children statewide. That goes far beyond issues of local impact," said Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, who has introduced an amendment to the 2004-2006 state budget that would provide $2 million for planning and design work on a new home for the school, which traces its history in Staunton back to 1839.

Hanger has been chipping away at the VSDB issue since 1996, when legislation that he introduced to consolidate the school's two state campuses - in Staunton and in Hampton - at the Queen City location failed in the Senate on a tiebreaker vote cast by former lieutenant governor Don Beyer.

The General Assembly subsequently set up an advisory commission to study the consolidation issue and come up with recommendations as to what the state should do regarding the two schools.

That commission, which Hanger served on, recommended a partial consolidation that would have moved the bulk of the schools' operations to the Staunton campus, with the Hampton school to continue to serve a handful of students with special needs.

Another study group that Hanger served on looked at the issue again two years ago and voted to do something drastically different - close both of the existing schools and build a new campus to serve traditional-education-based students and special-needs students.

Hanger told The Augusta Free Press that he opposed that move, and his push to have the state fund the construction of a new school only came afterward, "after it was clear that there was interest in moving forward in this direction."

"The consensus had seemed to be that there was interest in looking at a location somewhere in the Charlottesville or Richmond areas," said Hanger, whose state-budget amendment calls for the new school to be built adjacent to the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville.

"My first preference is that the consolidated school remain in Staunton, with the limited presence in Hampton. But if we're not going to move in that direction, then I think we should consider Woodrow Wilson, with the priority being that we maintain a presence close to the employee base at the Staunton campus as possible," Hanger said.

"Otherwise, we would risk losing a fair number of employees at the current school, and that could cause a disruption in the educational service that is being provided at the school," Hanger said.

At this point, the revised Senate budget for 2004-2006 includes $2 million to fund the planning and design work that would have to be done in advance of building a new school in Fishersville.

The revised House of Delegates budget for the current biennium, for the record, includes an amendment proposed by Staunton Republican Del. Chris Saxman that calls for the consolidation of the two schools at the Staunton location.

Hanger said he hopes members of the two houses can reach a happy medium on the VSDB issue.

"My thought is that we need to get this in the budget and continue working on the issue until we can arrive at a solution that is the best for everyone involved," the senator said.

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