Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What to Do With the West Virginia School For the Deaf and Blind?

The rumblings have been coming for some time.  What will happen to the 143 year old West Virginia School For the Deaf and Blind in Romney?

Assessments over the past year have raised questions.  Why keep the school in Romney?  How can the state afford to pay to maintain historically significant, but dilapidated and unused buildings?  In what ways must the school update itself to meet 21st century guidelines?

Estimates run as high as $80 million to renovate the campus and its curriculum to meet modern guidelines.

The location vexes many.  Why did the state put the school there in the first place?  The first generation of West Virginia state leaders sprinkled state institutions in different regions.  Most state jobs at the time were political appointments, so state institutions were seen as a good way to build party strength.  A story, perhaps apocryphal, says that Moundsville could have had West Virginia University, but chose the penitentiary instead because it offered more state jobs.

State law requires that the school remain in Romney.  It is unlikely that other legislators will desire to oppose Hampshire County's senators and delegates while also aligning themselves against an inevitable parade of disabled children and their supporters.

If Montgomery was able to prevent the sensible move of the school formerly known as West Virginia Tech to Charleston, the removal of this school from Romney is highly unlikely.

So it will likely stay put.  But how should it change and where will the money come from?

Currently the school only uses a fraction of its campus for educational purposes.

So here's a thought.  It may not even be doable.  But ideas are always worth debating.

First, do what colleges and universities do.  Hire a development team to raise money to refurbish the campus.  If the state makes a commitment to keep the school there, fundraisers can put donor names on every building.  They can even put plaques on every quarter acre.

Second, think beyond now.  What else can the school offer with its unused space?  Can it offer specialized digital classes to other schools and parents across the country?  Can it put together a post graduate training center to educate teachers from all over on how to work with deaf or blind children?

In other words, how can this beautiful and historical space be best utilized to not only serve the children of West Virginia, but also help to advance the field of disabled education?

This can be done under the current regime.  It might, however, offer better results if a non profit organization came together as a partner.  A non profit could take over currently unused sections of the campus and expand programs while partnering with and enriching the traditional mission.

Such an institution would certainly provide significant economic impact for Romney and Hampshire County.  A non profit that can attract out of state funds would perform that function much better than relying solely on taxpayer efforts.

It could be done.  It is at least worth a discussion.

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