State might keep three schools for blind, deaf

Idea could aid Blind, deaf

lbonner@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2011 

The state education department side-stepped a legislative directive to close one of the three residential schools for blind and deaf students and will instead pitch a plan to consolidate administration.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson outlined a proposal Monday that would keep the three schools largely unchanged. The Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh would become a satellite of the Eastern North Carolina School for the Deaf in Wilson, with its administration consolidated there. The Raleigh school would keep its students and its name, Atkinson said.

The plan for the schools will include a recommendation to lease vacant space on the campuses to charter schools, regional schools, or school districts in order to raise money. The legislature expected the state would save $5.5 million a year by closing one of the schools, which together enroll about 200 students. The Governor Morehead School, sits on about 60 acres west of downtown Raleigh, near N.C. State University. The school enrolls about 50 students, 35 of whom live on campus during the school week.

Atkinson did not have an estimate for how much the administrative changes would save, or if any jobs would be cut.

A Governor Morehead School parent said she was relieved the school wouldn't be moth-balled.

"I'm glad it's staying open," said LaMarr Scott of Fuquay-Varina, mother of an 18-year-old Morehead School student. "I think that's good as long as they don't lose services."

She wondered, though, how much rental space could be found since some of the buildings house state offices.

Legislators said DPI didn't do what they wanted, but that they would work with the report.

"They sort of punted it back to us," said Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a House budget writer from McDowell County. It's possible that legislators will decide in the next budget to keep the three campuses open, he said.

State legislators put DPI in a difficult spot, telling the department to pick a school to close but then weighing in on behalf of their favorites.

Gillespie and three other Republican legislators spoke up for the North Carolina School for the Deaf at a September public hearing in Morganton.

"The deaf community is an intricate part of our corporate world and culture here in Burke County," Gillespie said at the hearing. Gillespie said Monday he was doing his job as a legislator to point out how the Morganton school met the standards the legislature set out for DPI's decision.

Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson said he wanted to keep the deaf school in his county open, and even two congressmen, Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones and U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat, came to the Wilson school's defense.

Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican, said the decision to keep the three campuses and lease property "sounds like a very positive step."

Atkinson said she talked to Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata about his district leasing space, but he had not had the chance to talk to Wake school board members about it.

Legislators want to close a school because of declining enrollments.

"One of the reasons we were looking at consolidating was the usage levels had dropped to the point where three facilities were no longer justified," said Sen. Pete Brunstetter, a chief budget writer.

Legislators could not decide which school to close, and Atkinson's report shows the difficulty in shuttering a government institution, the Forsyth Republican said.

"The legislature couldn't come up with a consensus and passed the responsibility on to the superintendent," he said. "It's been a difficult situation for her, too."

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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