Austine alumni want to save the school


BRATTLEBORO -- A group of Austine School for the Deaf alumni have formed a committee to try to work with the Board of Trustees to help keep the school open.

Thirteen Austine School graduates have formed the Save Austine Committee to make sure the lines of communication remain open as the board figures out how to get itself out what it is calling a fiscal crisis that has threatened the institution.

The Austine School Board has said that the school, and the Vermont Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, are dangerously low on cash, and the board is considering a number of options including closing the school.

Charles Johnson, a 1965 graduate of the Austine School, said the board made a presentation on the current financial situation at the March Austine School Museum Committee.

A number of alumni at that meeting decided to act to become more engaged in the ongoing debate.

Johnson said the school alumni on the museum committee were surprised and dismayed when they learned about how serious the financial issues have become at the school.

The Austine Alumni Association formed the Save Austine Committee.

"That was the first time many of us found out about this," Johnson said through an interpreter. "We were really shocked to see that one of the options was to close the school. We want to make sure the alumni have a voice as the board figures out what to do."

The Austine School Board of Trustees announced in March that years of declining enrollment coupled with years of spending down the school's endowment to meet expenses have left the school and organization with very little cash.

The board could make a decision at its April 11 meeting about the future of the school.

"The committee recently met and has many unanswered questions about the current situation," Johnson said. "We want to seek ways to work with the Austine School Board of Directors to remain open and continue to be a part of our Austine Alumni Association."

The board said it is considering three options which include keeping things as they are, limiting the on-campus programs, or retaining only regional programs and outreach programs.

"The alumni want to do what we can to save the school," Johnson said. "We plan to go to the board meetings and let the president and board members know how we feel."

"It was an excellent letter they sent us and we are excited about what they can bring to this conversation," VCDHH President Bill Gurney said. "Some of the people who are involved go all the way back to the '60s, and it was apparent the love they have for Austine School. I'm sure the board will take what they have to say to heart."

Gurney has been very forthcoming with information about the future of Austine School and VCDHH but he admits that not every piece of information is seen by everyone.

He said the alumni group will be an important resource to help spread the news as it develops.

"The letter reassures us that more of the community wants to know what is going on," Gurney said. "We need their support, and we need them to recruit students and let everyone else know how we are going to proceed forward."

Gurney said the school has signed a lease with New England Center for Circus Arts for the organization to use the Austine School gym, and a number of other lease arrangements are in the works for renting out some of the under-used space on campus.

And VCDHH has extended its line of credit out another six months that at least gives the board a little time to decide its next step.

But that time grows shorter every day.

Gurney said the board will have to make a decision about next year at the April 11 meeting.

The families of students have to make arrangements for the 2014-15 school year and staff also deserve to know if they will be working, Gurney said.

"The board wants to address this as quickly as possible," Gurney said. "They know they are up against a time constraint. They have been given all of the information and I will give them an update. Then we'll give them an opportunity to make a decision and move forward with whatever they decide."

In a letter to Gurney the committee said it was concerned that the Austine School was suffering from the financial challenges of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

"Many of our Austine Alumni are not fully aware of the VCDHH and often feel like our alumni and school are being convoluted within VCDHH," the letter read. "VCDHH has many programs, and perhaps has become mismanaged and disarrayed for one board of trustees to administer."

According to the letter the new committee members want to do more outreach to let potential families know about the option of sending their children to the Austine School.

"Let's work together on focusing on the ways Austine School can recruit, retain, and revitalize its school," the committee members wrote to Gurney. "As we move forward on the strategic plan for Austine School within the VCDHH organization we hope that our Save Austine Committee can work with you and your leaders to look at ways publication materials, presentations and events can be delivered for parents, school districts, and businesses how attending Austine School is a fully communication accessible least restrictive and financially sustainable community asset."

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


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