A new school year for Austine School


BRATTLEBORO -- For the first time in almost 100 years, deaf and hard-of-hearing students will not be arriving on the Austine School campus during the last few weeks of August.

After years of declining enrollment, and plunging revenues, The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Board voted in April to close the school for at least two years.

The board, during an emotional meeting on April 11 which brought out dozens of alumni who pleaded to keep the school open, admitted that day that they were out of money and that there would be no way to open the school in September.

Since then about 50 people lost their jobs, and while The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is going to still offer its consulting services for deaf and hard of hearing students across Vermont, there is still a 174-acres campus, and thousands of square feet of building space to care for and occupy.

Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing President Bill Gurney has been working since April to chart the course into the future for the Austine School and for the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

The new budget is not going to be accepted until October, and while there are plenty of questions still to be answered about the future of the school and campus, Gurney said the organization is moving forward toward solvency, and hopefully a sustainable future.

"The success of the future of our residential day program is based on other people sharing the burden of our campus," Gurney said. "The reality is that we will never have 100-plus students on this campus. Any income we can bring in will offset our costs and allow us to rebuild our academic program."

When the board members voted in April to not open for classes in September, they gave Gurney at least two years to come up with a plan for a new academic program on the Austine campus.

It may or may not serve deaf and hard of hearing students.

And there may never again be classes offered by the Vermont Center for the Deaf on the Austine campus.

Until the future is decided Gurney has been trying to bring tenants into the halls and buildings.

Over the past few weeks staff members and volunteers from The Garland School have been preparing their new classrooms on the Austine campus.

The Waldorf-based preschool, which used to be located at the All Souls Church in West Brattleboro, is moving to the Austine campus and will be welcoming about 20 1-to-6-year-old children when the program opens in the coming weeks.

The school is opening in the north wing of the Croker Building, and the staff members have already started a school garden and painted a mural on a wall leading up to the classroom.

"We had to move out of the church and we were looking for a new space," said school director Willow Nilsen. "We are very much a a nature-based school and the Austine campus is beautiful. We have access to the forest and trails, it is perfect for us."

After outgrowing its space at All Souls Church, The Garland School will have three classrooms, an office and use of a kitchen at Austine, as well as access to the outdoor space on the campus.

The school is a credited Vermont preschool and is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

"After being in a tight space we now have room to grow," Nilsen said. "It seems mutually beneficial. They had space to fill and they have been very supportive of what we do. We're gong to be outside all the time. I think we're going to bring a lot of life to the campus."

Gurney has also signed a contract extension with the High 5 Adventure Learning Center, which does rope and team building exercises on the campus, and University of Vermont Extension will be using some of the Austine indoor space for events and conferences.

Gurney is in negotiations with a few other groups, he said, and he is working to bring in other organizations to help cover some of the approximately $1 million it cost to maintain the buildings throughout the year.

Over the past 100 years the Vermont Legislature has granted the Austine School about $5.7 million for various land and building purchases and upgrades, and income from any land sales has to go back to the state.

Austine officials will be traveling to Montpelier once the 2015 session starts to ask for relief for some or all of that money.

Last year there were about 107 people working on the Austine campus and there are now about 35 employees working there

Gurney said that while the school has made some positive steps forward there is much more work to do to ensure that the school and organization survives.

"We are trying to get other folks to come in here. We still have a lot of space to fill in Vermont Hall and we'd love to talk with anyone who is interested," he said. "This has been a dramatic change for this organization. It was a big decision to close for this year, and now that we've done that we can get started to move toward the future."

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


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