ROMNEY, W.Va. — Gayle Manchin, president of the West Virginia Board of Education, addressed more than 200 people who attended the board meeting held in Romney on Wednesday evening regarding the fate of the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
“This attendance exceeds all my expectations,” Manchin said. “The board is not in Romney to close the schools. We came here to see what renovations are needed and how the community feels about the schools.”
Manchin is the wife of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the former governor of West Virginia.
The threat of moving the schools surfaced last year during a board meeting in Charles-ton when board member Lloyd Jackson asked if it would be cheaper to build a new campus in another location.
At that meeting, board superintendent Lynn Boyer presented a proposed strategic long-term plan for the future of the schools that totaled $100 million.
The overwhelming feeling in the room Wednesday was passion for the students and the sense of the schools being a part of Romney.
Romney Mayor Dan Hileman pledged his support for the schools.
“As mayor and a private citizen, I pledge to do everything possible to keep the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind here in Romney,” Hileman said.
Family was the word that kept surfacing as teachers, parents, students and officials expressed their desire to have the schools remain in Romney.
Russ Conrad, who has been in the education business for 41 years, said that 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 with 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.”
Jean Shoemaker, a member of the Hampshire County Board of Education, said, “The community knows the children and the children know the community. The community embraces these kids.”
One after another, teachers, parents and students spoke about the need for the schools to remain in Romney.
Manchin said the board was there to acquire firsthand information about the schools and their connection with the community.
Numerous people told about the city’s compassion and concern for the schools’ children.
The city has replaced sidewalks with curb ramps for easy access and traffic lights beep when it’s safe to cross Main Street, which is U.S. Route 50. A special light was installed at the exit/entrance of the schools to further the safety of the students.
Jamie McBride, principal of the Blind School, addressed the board on behalf of her school.
She said the teachers are 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.
McBride said Romney has provided a safe environment and wherewithal for the kids to go downtown to shop.
She also complimented the school’s radio station. “It has an educational value in that students come to the schools just to be taught radio technology. ... It is important to know that this station is licensed by the FCC and cannot be moved or changed from Romney,” McBride said.
City Administrator Eileen Johnson talked about the improvements on infrastructure in the city and working with the schools as plans were being made on sidewalks and so forth.
“We need to share responsibilities and be collaborative partners. We need to have active engagement. The responsibility sits with us all,” Johnson said.
Board members asked Johnson if she would consider forming a committee to further this type of dialogue. Johnson agreed.
Manchin talked about the estimated cost of transforming the campus into a state-of-the-art facility.
The schools’ 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.
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.
“Do we need renovation? Sure. So use a million here or there and renovate. Give up this fantasy of $100 million,” Allen said.
Manchin suggested that the local chamber of commerce or other county agencies could help seek grant opportunities. “As a state agency the schools can’t apply for grants.
“We have to be creative and reach out for money. There are 79 acres of campus,” Manchin said. She and the board toured the campus Wednesday morning.
They watched a video showing a song written especially for the students.
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 how the schools love the community.
“We are asking Romney to help us find the answers,” she said.
The board superintendent will prepare another report and the board will make a decision in the near future, Manchin said.