An early learning center in Brattleboro says it wants to make a bid for the 177-acre campus of the former Austine School for the Deaf.
The campus has been largely vacant since the Austine School closed abruptly at the end of the 2014 school year. The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which ran the school, declared bankruptcy five months later.
Last week, the board of the Winston Prouty Center for Child Development, an early learning program in Brattleboro, unanimously voted to look into purchasing the Austine School campus.
Chloe Learey, the executive director of the center, says she envisions a bustling center of learning at Austine, with support services and programs for the greater Brattleboro region.
"It would be great to have space where we could collaborate together as well as invite other nonprofits that might need space to the campus,” Learey says. “That will create synergy, or an opportunity to work together in ways we don't now."
Winston Prouty has deep roots in Brattleboro.
When it opened in 1969, it was one of the first programs in the country developed exclusively for children with special needs.
Today, the school serves all children – and Winston Prouty is at capacity. Just as Austine School was closing last year, Winston Prouty was close to beginning a $2.4 million expansion.
Now the construction project is on hold, and the organization will explore what it would take to purchase the former school for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Board member Frederic Noyes says the board has been encouraged by how the finances are looking.
"We haven't seen any blatant red flags that made us feel as though we had to apply the brakes,” Noyes says.
But financial and legal hurdles have to be cleared before any of this can happen.
The Austine School campus is tied up in bankruptcy court.
The state of Vermont – which has supported Austine for a century – also has a stake in the deal. State law says taxpayers are entitled to recoup the $5.6 million granted to the school through the years.
Assistant Attorney General Jacob Humbert says he realizes the state is not likely to recoup all of its money through the bankruptcy process.
He says the state is open to creative uses of the campus, like those being considered by the Prouty Center.
"It sounds like the bid would encompass a variety of charitable and educational civic purposes down there on the campus,” Humbert says. “That concept certainly isn't something the state is adverse to at all."
Humbert says the state wants the property put up at auction to ensure it has every opportunity to test the market prior to a sale.
Winston Prouty has already raised about $150,000 toward its original expansion plans. Following the board's vote last week, Prouty Center Director Learey says the school is going to make a fundraising plea to support the new plan.
Whatever happens, Learey says Winston Prouty has to address its growth and find additional space for its kids and staff.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is a reporter at the Brattleboro Reformer.