Trustees of Brattleboro’s Austine School for the Deaf have voted to close the 100-year-old residential program at the end of this school year. But the board also made a commitment to work towards reopening the school in 2016.
The Austine School had enrollments of close to 150 students in the 1970s and 80s. It now serves fewer than 20. According to Austine President Bill Gurney, the school’s 174-acre campus costs more than $1 million dollars annually to maintain. Gurney says the school’s endowment and credit are maxed out.
"We don’t have the funds to hire staff, pay the insurance bills, pay the light bill starting on July one," Gurney says.
The decision was made at an emotionally-charged meeting of the school’s parent group, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
The umbrella organization is based at the Austine campus and many of its programs and services are doing well. The center’s outreach service reaches hundreds of students in Vermont schools. Gurney says those programs will continue, but under a new name. The parent group will now be called the Austine Center.
"I think the decision of the board to change the name of the umbrella organization to Austine Center is reflective of the decision to move forward and to develop our programs in a way that will be sustainable into the future," Gurney says. "We feel that there's still a need for the programs we offer."
Dozens of Austine alumni turned out to testify to the school’s importance to the deaf community. Many offered suggestions for keeping the school afloat. Gurney says Austine will need new ideas to remain relevant in an era when public schools are required to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
About 50 people will lose their jobs when the school closes.