For The State Journal
ROMNEY, WV – More than 200 people attended the Wednesday night meeting held by the West Virginia Board of Education to discuss the fate of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
"The attendance exceeds all my expectations. We thought there would be a crowd but had no idea this many would come," said board President Gayle Manchin.
People stood along the walls. Additional chairs were brought into the room and still others had to sit on the floor and stand in the hallway.
Manchin told the audience the board was not in Romney to close the school.
"We came here to see what renovations are needed and how the community feels about the schools," Manchin said.
The threat of moving the WVSDB surfaced last year during a board meeting in Charleston when board member Lloyd Jackson asked if it would be cheaper to build a new WVSDB in a location other than Romney.
At that meeting, WVSDB Superintendent Lynn Boyer was presenting a proposed strategic long-term plan for the future of the schools.
Since that time there have been community meetings held at the schools and a sharing of community concerns not only for the children but from the economic impact a move would have on Hampshire County.
The overwhelming feeling in the room was passion for the students and the sense of the schools being a part of Romney.
The word that kept surfacing as teachers, parents, students and officials expressed their desire to have the schools remain in Romney was "family."
Russ Conrad, a semi-retired educator, was the first person to speak to the board.
Conrad said he had been in the education business for 41 years.
He began with kudos toward Boyer.
"Dr. Boyer has brought vigor, energy and expertise to the schools. She has opened the eyes of the staff at what other schools in the nation have," Conrad said.
He said Boyer has re-energized the staff.
Conrad spoke passionately about his and the staff's love and concern for the children of the schools.
"I can say will confidence that your children will be safe in our school," Conrad said.
"We wouldn't take WVU out of Morgantown, and I ask you not to take WVSDB out of Romney."
His comments were followed by cheers and applause. What wasn't heard was the many waving of hands from the deaf students attending the meeting, a signing of clapping.
A blind graduate addressed the board saying he wouldn't be independent and wouldn't know how to do geometry without the knowledge of the "special" teachings at the schools.
One after another, teachers, parents and students addressed the board speaking about the need for the schools to remain in Romney.
A tearful mother overtaken by emotion stood at the podium barely able to speak.
"My children have learned social skills. They can never live independently, but the schools have given them purpose," she said.
"How do you think the schools could better serve children someplace else?"
Manchin said the board wasn't visiting Romney to make a proposal for change but to acquire firsthand information about the schools and the schools connection with the community.
Numerous people told the board about the city of Romney's compassion and concern for the school's children.
The city has replaced sidewalks with curb ramps for easy access, and stop lights beep when it's safe to cross Main Street, which is also U.S. 50. A special light was installed at the exit/entrance of the schools across from McDonalds to further the safety of the students.
Blind school principal Jamie McBride addressed the board on behalf of her school.
McBride shared her and her teacher's experiences of living with blindness.
She said the teachers are special and specially trained to handle the children.
"Many families have relocated to Romney. If the schools were moved, parents would have to leave their jobs and uproot the children," McBride said.
"We are close to Washington, DC and Winchester. We take the children on field trips to the big city. This cannot be matched anywhere else in the state."
McBride said Romney has provided to be a safe environment for the kids to go downtown to shop.
"We have had a radio station here at WVSDB since 1973. It has an educational value in that students come to the schools just to be taught radio technology. The station is WVSB 104.1 FM. It is important to know that this station is licensed by the FCC and cannot be moved or changed from Romney," McBride said.
That is yet another reason, she said, for the schools to remain in Romney.
Manchin talked about the estimated cost of transforming the campus into a state-of-the-art facility.
Chief financial officer Mark Gondolfi explained some of the current costs the schools are facing.
"Some of the updates are costly. It's going to cost $280,000 to replace the air condition in the school for the blind. Roof systems are 25 years old. That's another half million dollars," Gondolfi said.
"When retrofitting a building it is very expensive. To retro is astronomical. We're talking about technology. That is wiring, duct work and so forth."
David Allen, a retired teacher, referred to the $100 million project.
"We have a beautiful campus. I don't know if we need $100 million," Allen said.
Referring to the board room where the meeting was taking place, Allen said, "This used to be a band room, at one time an ag room and even an auto repair room. The point is you can renovate for a fraction of new building costs."
Allen's comments were interrupted with loud cheering and applause.
"I think we need to throw out this idea of $100 million. Do we need renovation? Sure. So use a million here or there and renovate. Give up this fantasy of $100 million," Allen said.
Manchin said, "It does take a lot of money. One of the things that should be looked at is grant opportunities that are available. As a state agency the schools can't apply for grants."
However, she said, the local chamber of commerce or other county agencies can.
She said, "There is a group of people called KaBoom that help build playgrounds."
KaBoom is a national non-profit organization dedicated to creating playgrounds through the leadership and participation of communities.
Manchin said maybe KaBoom has an arm that can help the schools with a playground.
"We have to be creative and reach out for money. There are 79 acres of campus," Manchin said.
The board, WVSDB officials and others toured the campus Wednesday morning.
Manchin said she watched a video showing a song written especially for the students as part of the schools' letting the board know of their intricacy.
She fought back tears to repeat two lines, "I've never seen a rhododendron bloom. I've never heard a cardinal sing." Manchin said, "Every child should know what it means for a rhododendron to bloom and a cardinal to sing."
Manchin said she was overwhelmed to see the community's love for the schools and the schools love the community.
"We are asking Romney to help us find the answers," she said.
"I am sorry the people have been under the anguish regarding a possible move. It was unnecessary. I know people are fearful. I understand that. This was a wonderful meeting," Manchin said.
Boyer said she will prepare another report for the board.
Manchin said along with the data obtained during the visit and input from the community, the board will be making a decision on the fate of the schools in the near future.