Holton Hall at the Austine campus in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Holton Hall at the Austine campus in Brattleboro. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Monday June 10, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A statewide deaf advocacy group is criticizing the recent hiring of the new president and CEO of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The Vermont Association of the Deaf says the hiring of William Gurney to lead the Austine School and the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (VCDHH) fails to meet the center's mission of empowering deaf and hard of hearing children.

Gurney is not deaf and does not have a long history of using American Sign Language.

In a letter to the chairman of the VCDHH board of trustees, Mary Essex of the Vermont Association of the Deaf says the entire process of hiring Gurney was flawed and asks VCDHH to establish a stronger commitment to including alumni and parent groups in future decisions, and to retain and recruit more deaf professionals to work in leadership positions on campus.

"It is not the intention of VTAD to diminish the capacity of VCDHH, but just the opposite," Essex wrote. "VCDHH has so many resources and is capable of being a strong asset to the state of Vermont. We seek to collaborate our resources and work together as a team to improve the quality of life for all deaf and hard of hearing Vermonters."

Gurney, who is the associate superintendent of SAU 29 in Keene, N.H., was selected by the Board of Trustees in April to replace outgoing President and CEO Bert Carter, who is leaving to take over as president of the Willie Ross School in Longmeadow, Mass.

VCDHH hired a national consulting firm to find a replacement for Carter and considered candidates from Arizona, Colorado and Washington D.


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C. before hiring Gurney.

In her letter responding to the hiring of Gurney, Essex said VCDHH not only insulted the deaf community by choosing a leader without extensive ASL experience, but the organization also did a very poor job of engaging the local and statewide deaf community.

The school has hired an ASL teacher to work with Gurney, who will be moving to campus with his wife on July 1.

"It's going to be a great challenge, but my wife and I are looking forward to moving there and to becoming a part of the community," Gurney said. "I am going to be starting my lessons on ASL and I hope to be up to speed on the basics before school opens in September. I am going to do the best I can to carry on the traditions of the school."

VCDHH also failed to communicate with current and former family members, Essex wrote.

Essex claims that VCDHH parents and care providers were not told that Carter was leaving and were not informed of the search process.

She also says VCDHH failed to use state and national deaf resources to find a new president.

"Hiring Mr. Gurney fails to meet the mission of VCDHH which is to empower deaf and hard of hearing children, adults and families through comprehensive and individualized education, social and support services," Essex wrote, adding that VCDHH did not "Respect the professionalism of major universities that train students to work in educational administration with specialties in deaf education and special education."

VCDHH board member William Pendlebury said both deaf and hearing candidates were considered.

He said the board did in fact work with staff and alumni during the screening process and Gurney was brought to campus to answer questions before he was hired.

Gurney answered questions about his lack of experience with deaf culture and language during that time, Pendlebury said.

"We did a nationwide search for the next VCDHH president. Mr. Gurney made it clear that he was motivated to learn ASL and deaf culture," said Pendlebury. "VCDHH needs a strong leader who is able to work with deaf, hard of hearing and hearing stakeholders, and we believe that Mr. Gurney is the right person to do this."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.