ROMNEY – State school board leaders are mulling whether to relocate the specialized school here where young West Virginians with sight and hearing impairments have studied since 1870.
During the state Board of Education meeting this month, members asked whether building a facility elsewhere would be more cost effective than renovating the current West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind site.
ZMM Inc., the Charleston-based architectural firm that developed a master plan for the school, now is determining what it would cost to build a facility from scratch.
“If we move somewhere then the items in our plan that call for renovation and restoration of two historic buildings would not be part of the costs,” explained Lynn Boyer, a former director for special education was became superintendent of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind in 2011. “But by the same token if we stay here we don’t have to buy land.”
In 2010, the Romney school was cited by the state’s Office of Education Performance Audits for deficiencies in leadership, curriculum, safety and technology.
After served as executive director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Special Programs, Extended and Early Learning, Boyer worked as assistant executive director of the Council for Exceptional Children, a nonprofit group in Arlington, Va., before moving into the Romney post.
Boyer estimated a new campus would require 20 to 30 acres. The existing campus is nearly 80 acres.
This year, 120 students from 30 counties are enrolled at the school. The school hit its largest enrollment ever when 264 pupils were enrolled in the fall of 1915, according to a school history on HistoricHampshire.org.
If the school is relocated, the new site must be in or near a town that’s large enough to allow students to learn how to live and navigate the wider world, Boyer said.
“We couldn’t just go look for the cheapest acres of land and just go there,” she said. “There would be no advantage to going if all we were doing is moving someplace and the children have nothing but their classrooms and their dorm rooms. That’s not meeting the mission of the schools.’’
She said blind students would need at least minimal public transportation and sidewalks.
“Children who are deaf or hard of hearing have to have enough of a community around them that they can begin to understand how they, as deaf adults, eventually will manage,” Boyer said. “How will they bring their own interpreters into a situation for instance? How will they communicate their needs to a restaurant, to a job opportunity?”
Officials also need to determine whether more students would enroll if the schools were moved to a more central location in the state.
In recent decades, mainstreaming students with vision and hearing impairments has grown increasingly popular and more students are opting to study in their neighborhood schools rather than relocate to Romney.
“It’s a hard, hard question,’’ Boyer said. “We’re at a time when many counties believe they can serve their children and do. We know that there are counties that try very hard but because of their own resources are not able to provide the kind of services that we can provide.’”
Boyer said she plans to present information to the board on the cost of relocating the schools and how many West Virginia children who are blind and deaf attend the school now and where their homes are.
State board members are expected to discuss the merits of relocating the school or renovating the buildings on the current 79-acre campus again at their next regular meeting, Feb. 13 and 14.
Reached at presstime Tuesday, Ruth Ann King, Deafblind Project Coordinator for the West Virginia Department of Education, said she couldn’t provide a breakdown of how many students at the Romney school are preschoolers versus K-12.
She said she also couldn’t provide the school’s budget for 2012-13 or how many people are employed on the Romney campus.
According to previously published reports, the total budget for the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind for 2009-10 was $12.7 million.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report
Highlights from the Schools for the Deaf and Blind:
* When West Virginina became a state in 1863, blind and deaf children were no longer eligible to attend the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind. Some blind and deaf children attended special schools in neighboring states with West Virginia paying their tuition and a few attended public school, but most received no schooling at all.
* Lawmakers in the then-capital of Wheeling authorize the creation of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind on March 3, 1870.
* Parkersburg, Clarksburg and other communities in the state are considered to serve as the home of the new school, but Romney prevails after city leaders donate land and a building, property which had once been the Romney Classical Institute. That school had been shuttered during the Civil War.
* Six months after the Legislature’s decision, the school opened with 25 deaf students and five blind students.
* The school’s main campus includes 16 buildings and 79 acres of property.
* Helen Keller, who became a hero worldwide after she became the first blind and deaf person to earn a bachelor’s degree, visited the Romney school and delivered a lecture on May 17, 1916.