School closure rankles

One of 3 schools for the disabled must close. No one wants it to be theirs.

lbonner@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2011 

  • Gov. Morehead School

    for the Blind

    Raleigh

    45

    students

    122

    employees

    $5.5

    million budget

    Eastern N.C. School

    for the Deaf

    Wilson

    78

    students

    133

    employees

    $7.9

    million budget

    North Carolina School

    for the Deaf

    Morganton

    79

    students

    162

    employees

    $8.5

    million budget

    Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Budgets include facilities costs.

An item on Thursday's front page gave an incorrect number of employees for the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf. It has 133 workers.

RALEIGH -- The decision to close one of the state's three residential schools for disabled students has advocates for the blind at odds with advocates for the deaf, and communities across the state at loggerheads.

The disagreements spilled out at public hearings in Wilson and Morganton, home each to a school for the deaf, last week as hundreds of students, alumni, current and former employees, and local politicians turned out to plead for their favored schools.

On Wednesday evening, the drama moved to Raleigh for the third, and last, in the series. About 250 people showed up, with audience members cheering loudly when speakers pitched the attributes of the Gov. Morehead School for the Blind.

That one of the schools has to close is certain. Legislators wrote it into this year's budget but did not pick which one, giving the state Department of Public Instruction the thankless task of picking the loser.

Legislators have talked sporadically over the years about consolidating the schools, but have turned back partly because of the controversies sparked.

Rep. Harold Brubaker, chief House budget writer, said in a telephone interview before the hearing that the decision to close one of the schools this time comes down to savings.

"It was simply dollars in the budget," said Brubaker, an Asheboro Republican. "We would have preferred to have expanded if we had the dollars."

The schools don't enroll enough students to fill the space they have, but support for them is magnified because they are employment hubs with cultural and historic significance.

Speakers at the hearings have played up those connections to the communities.

Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said the state really needs all three schools, but that the Morehead School should stay in Raleigh. The city has the public transportation system, the curb cuts and audible crosswalk signals vital to blind people's mobility, he said.

"Raleigh and the school have grown together and enhanced each other," he said.

Legislators from western North Carolina, including Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a state budget writer from McDowell County, took up for the N.C. School for the Deaf in Morganton at a public hearing last week, saying it is clear that it should survive.

Meanwhile, Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose said at a public hearing in his town that losing the school for the deaf there would be a serious economic blow, and that DPI should close the Raleigh or Morganton school.

Brubaker was critical of the department's decision to hold public hearings.

"We thought the department would have handled it better than they have; talked to different groups and asked, 'If we are reducing areas, what are your recommendations?' "

David Mills, a retired DPI employee who ran the public hearings, told the crowd that department leaders met with personnel at the schools and also wanted to hear from concerned citizens.

'My F's turned to B's'

Students said Morehead offered them vital services and connections with peers and teachers that they did not enjoy at traditional public schools.

Wenisha Richardson, 18, a senior from Lumberton, said at the hearing that she was an outcast with failing grades at her traditional public school. She was kicked off the cheerleading squad because she couldn't keep up.

"I sat in the back of the class," she said. "I did not talk at all."

At the Morehead School, "my F's turned to B's. I talked so much my teachers had to tell me to stop," she said. Richardson said she plays sports at Morehead and wants to become a physical education teacher for visually impaired and blind students.

Adults raised issues about which town would most easily bear the loss of jobs that would come with a closure and which locations would put the least burden on students traveling from other counties.

"I abhor pitting these schools against each other," said Gary Farmer, a Wilson resident who worked for the school for the deaf there for 32 years.

Farmer is fighting to keep the school at Wilson open and worked this week to persuade Wilson business leaders to get involved. He said the Wilson school would be able to absorb the entire Morehead School population.

Barbara Palmento of Morganton said DPI should tell legislators it won't close a school.

"I challenge you to tell legislators, 'No,' " she said. "Keep all three schools open."

Any decision DPI makes likely will divide legislators, said Sen. Neal Hunt, a chief budget writer and Raleigh Republican. Hunt said he toured the Morehead School last week, and was impressed.

"I don't think you're going to see the Gov. Morehead School close," he said. "That's just me. You would expect me to say that."

The state Board of Education is set to make its decision and report to the legislature by Jan. 15. One of the schools will close next summer.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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