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Austine School to close by end of September

Board of Trustees: ‘We can’t keep up with the costs of the land and the buildings’

BRATTLEBORO—After more than a century, the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing will close its doors by month’s end.

Efforts this year by the school and its Board of Trustees to save the center’s many programs did not turn up revenue needed to support its seven buildings and 200-acre Austine School campus.

Board of Trustees Chairman Thomas Sonneborn said approximately 40 employees — and more than 600 children and adults who receive services through either campus programs or the center’s statewide consultant network — will be affected.

Trustees made the decision to close during a special meeting on Sept. 3.

“The Board of Trustees is very saddened by all of this,” Sonneborn said in a telephone interview. “We can’t keep up with the costs of the land and the buildings.”

He said trustees are working to provide a seamless transition for VCDHH’s clients to receive services through other entities.

He added that, ideally, staffers will find work with the state.

Sonneborn said that the trustees hope some of VCDHH’s programs will continue through other entities and are encouraging like-minded organizations to offer programs for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities under the name “Austine.”

As VCDHH winds down, questions remain: Will the state take ownership of the property per early agreements with the school? Is the state prepared to take on the responsibility of educating Deaf and Hard of Hearing students as required by law? How will the closing affect members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities? Will vendors with outstanding invoices receive payment?

VCDHH announced earlier this year that it would temporarily suspend some of its campus programs for a couple of years while it focused on increasing revenues.

Earlier this year, VCDHH pointed to declining campus program enrollments as a reasons for its fiscal woes. With more students receiving education in their home communities, fewer families sought residential programs.

According to its website, the Austine School launched the VCDHH in 1998 to provide “statewide, location-based support for deaf education through a statewide consulting network” in response to the number of Deaf and Hard of Hearing students seeking services in their home communities.

Sonneborn said VCDHH had hired a development specialist and was working to attract more students but those efforts fell short.

Trustees had also tried moving VCDHH programs to a smaller campus, said Sonneborn. He added that, as he understands it, state law prohibits transferring funding designated for one entity or property to a new entity or property.

“We can’t pare down or back any more expenses,” he said.

He said he regretted that VCDHH sees no other options open to it but to close the doors.

According to its website, a 1904 bequest from retired U.S. Army Col. William Austine launched the school. Vermont’s Legislature approved the school’s charter later that year.

The Legislature voted im 1912 to purchase 200 acres for the school’s campus off Maple Street in Brattleboro.

Sonneborn said that the 1912 vote might have given the state a say over what happens to the land and buildings after the school closes.

In his understanding, the state might have the right of first refusal should the campus go up for sale, or the right to payment when the school closes.

“We have been receiving comments and some outrage by the Deaf community, and we want to work with everybody in trying to move forward,” said Sonneborn.

In an effort to bring in extra revenue, VCDHH rented building space to The Garland School, a Waldorf nursery and preschool program serving 2 to 6 year olds.

The nonprofit High 5 Adventure Learning Center has occupied space at the Austine campus for more than a decade.

Sonneborn said that organizations renting at the Austine campus will have to make new lease arrangements with whatever entity takes over the campus.

“This was an agonizing decision to make,” he said. “We are extremely sensitive to the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities and staff and we want what’s best for them.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #271 (Wednesday, September 10, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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