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August 19, 2005

Hands of support rise high for VSDB

From: Staunton News Leader, VA - Aug 19, 2005

Board member: Turnout 'impressive'

By David Royer/staff

STAUNTON — The emotions ran so high, words couldn't do them justice.

Supporters of Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton packed a campus auditorium Thursday as members of the Virginia Board of Education got an earful from an audience of teachers, alumni and government officials intent on keeping the 167-year-old school open.

Many of those attending the public comment session were members of Staunton's deaf community, who made their pleas loud and clear through sign language interpreters.

"This is the cradle of deaf education ... the cradle of deaf culture," retired teacher and assistant principal Donna Wait told board members through an interpreter.

Board members were in Staunton on Thursday to get an inside look at the campus and surrounding neighborhoods where VSDB students learn independence and mobility skills along with their academic curriculum. Some board members had never visited the city.

The board is considering renovating the Staunton school following a consolidation with VSDB's other campus in Hampton. But another option — one that has tempers flaring in Staunton — would build a new campus in a location to be determined and shutter the Staunton school for good.

"I know this is a matter of great emotion and concern for you," board president Thomas Jackson told audience members. "This is not a responsibility that the state board solicited or campaigned for."

The debate about where to consolidate the VSDB campuses has flared up more than 30 times in about as many years.

Linda Blehm, a VSDB graduate and teacher, urged the board to put an end to the studies and controversy, which she said had hurt enrollment at the school.

"It is time for you to stop playing politics and pay attention to the education of our children," Blehm said through an interpreter.

Many speakers appealed to the emotional attachment between the school and the surrounding community. Students learn life skills by working and shopping at nearby businesses.

"It would be tragic if VSDB in Staunton was chosen to be closed and destroy the structure of education students at this school have had," retired teacher Alice Frick said through an interpreter.

Other speakers appealed to the board's fiscal interests.

Bill Hamilton, economic development director with the city of Staunton, said the state could be eligible for federal and state historic tax credits and a seven-year tax abatement from the city if they consolidate the schools in Staunton. The campus also has about 70 acres of undeveloped land for expansion.

"We know you want to do the smart money thing," Hamilton said. "We hope you want to be heroes, and we'll help you do that."

Board member Gary Jones called the outpouring of support "impressive," after listening to testimony from nearly 30 audience members.

"I think the people here demonstrated that they care very much about this school," said board member Tommy Johnson, on his first visit to VSDB-Staunton.

Board members must submit a report on their recommendations to state legislative committees by Oct. 1, though Jackson said they would not necessarily have to make a decision on a school location by then.

Del. Chris Saxman, R-Staunton said he was optimistic that the tour had strengthened Staunton's case.

"I think we have some votes coming our way," Saxman said.


More than 6,000 deaf, blind and multi-disabled students have walked through VSDB's halls since the school's first graduating class in 1844. This year, 130 students are enrolled at Staunton. More than 75 percent of graduates go on to college or the workforce, VSDB administrator Theresa Lindsay said.

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Members of the Va. Board of Education were in Staunton for an inside look at the campus and surrounding neighborhoods.

The board is considering renovating the Staunton school or closing the historic structure where the first class graduated in 1844.

Members of the board and contact information are as follows:

President Thomas M. Jackson Jr.

Hillsville lawyer with his own practice and former state delegate.
(276) 728-3737
Isis M. Castro

Fairfax County School Board member
(703) 246-4787
Mark E. Emblidge

Executive director of Virginia Literacy Foundation
(804) 237-8900
Andrew J. Rotherham

Director of 21st Century Schools Project and blogger at
(202) 547-0001
David L. Johnson

Education consultant and former teacher, guidance counselor and principal
(804) 330-4219
Thomas G. Johnson Jr.

Real estate and corporate lawyer in Norfolk
(757) 628-5548
Gary L. Jones

CEO of Youth for Tomorrow, a residential center for at-risk youth
(703) 631-3360
Eleanor B. Saslaw

Former guidance director at West Springfield High School
(301) 229-8483
Ella P. Ward

Retired teacher and administrator from Portsmouth and Chesapeake School Board member
(757) 488-6843

Copyright ©2005 The News Leader. All rights reserved.