Board votes to close Austine School for the Deaf in June

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BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Board of Directors has voted to close the Austine School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Williams Center in June.

The board on Friday voted 8-1 after discussing the school's future in executive session for almost an hour during its monthly meeting.

The Williams Center was opened in 2004 to meet the special emotional and behavioral needs of children who are deaf or hard of hearing.

VCDHH President Bill Gurney said the organization will try to re-open a residential program on the campus by July 2016, renamed as the Austine Center, though he said it was too early to announce how many students would be recruited or what the program would look like.

"It was a very hard day here, and there were some tense discussions we had," Gurney said after announcing the board's vote. "We know how important Austine School is to so many people but we really had no choice. We are out of money."

The decision was made Friday after months of talks by the board about the dire situation in which the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing found itself.

Years of declining enrollment forced past boards to use the school's endowment and Gurney said there was simply no money left to open next year.

"We have gotten into this trouble because we have relied on possibilities," board member Norb Johnson said before the vote. "We've had a lot of referrals who have visited and then decided to go somewhere else. We can't, and we won't, consider those people until we have a signed contract."

Gurney said VCDHH was going to end this fiscal year with a $38,000 deficit and the organization had extended its $1 million line of credit as far as it could go.

"This is not about the quality of our staff or about the quality of the work we do," Gurney said. "No one is at fault. We don't have enough students to make it feasible. We don't have enough students to pay our bills."

Families that are enrolled in the school this year, and who were planning to enroll for the 2014-15 school year, will be contacted Monday.

Gurney said the board asked him to come to the May board meeting with a new 2015 budget, which include proposed staffing cuts.

About 50 people will lose their jobs.

Those decisions will not become final until June, though Gurney said most of the staff involved with the residential programs will be laid off.

The VCDHH will retain many of its profitable programs, including The Little Arrows Daycare Center on campus and the statewide consulting program it runs to support students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

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"We met in executive session for a long time. We had a very lengthy discussion," VCDHH Board President Tom Sonneborn said.

"We would welcome your input before the next board meeting if you want to add something, especially if you support the idea."

About 50 staff members and alumni filled the fourth floor conference room for the board meeting. Before the vote was announced many of the comments came from alumni, with strong emotional ties to Austine.

"Without Austine I don't know where I'd be," said Charles Johnson.

"I want to keep this school open for deaf children," said Brian O'Connell, a 1980 graduate. "Austine allowed me to go out into the world at large. I want to see it open. It's so important."

Gurney said the fiscal crisis has forced administrators to make some tough choices.

Just two weeks ago an Austine School student was sent home to Washington, D.C., because Gurney said the school could not hire enough staff to keep the student, and staff, safe.

In better times, he said, the school would be able to absorb those costs

"The reality is that the financial situation is forcing us to make decisions that, in times of surplus, we would not have had to make," he said.

Before going into executive session, Gurney said he has been making a number of agreements with other organizations to rent out space in the vacant buildings on the 174-acre campus.

Gurney also said VCDHH is a finalist for a state-sponsored solar farm that could be installed this summer, and he authorized a timber sale that he said was going to help close this year's deficit.

But even with that extra money coming in, Gurney said it would be impossible to open in September.

With the number of students who are committed to The Williams Center, the program would lose $465,000 next year, while the Austine School would lose about $304,000 with the current enrollment.

The Williams Center would need four more students to break even, and Austine School would need another eight.

"There is no way we can absorb those kinds of deficits next year," Gurney said. "It's not impossible, but we have to measure the risk and reward."


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