Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Family and friends at Brattleboro’s Austine School for the Deaf wave cameras and their hands — the hard-of-hearing equivalent of applause — during commencement Tuesday for the current program’s last four graduates.
BRATTLEBORO — A century ago, telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell came to this town’s Austine School for the Deaf to speak at its first commencement — an event, staffers annually tell students, that represents both an end and a beginning.
This year the institution — the first and only such facility in the state — hopes that concept also applies to itself as the cash-starved school closes the next two academic years for reformulating before reopening with a business plan officials hope will be sustainable.
“It has resulted in some anger, but we need to turn around into some positivity,” alumni association outgoing president Michael Carter told a graduation audience through sign language Tuesday. “We’re going to need everyone’s help to have a successful future.”
The brick building overlooking Interstate 91’s southern gateway once drew students not only from New England — Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams grew up in Brattleboro so her older brother could attend the school — but also the nation.
But with educational “mainstreaming,” a facility that once served more than 150 boarders is down to one-tenth as many, while a budget deficit approaching $1 million threatens to match the annual cost of running the nearly 200-acre campus.
After the school graduated four students Tuesday, its board of trustees — having finalized plans to lay off 65 of its 100 employees — began trying to figure out how to lure families and faculty back in the fall of 2016.
At commencement, board member Jesse Woosley rewound to the start, when retired U.S. Army Col. William Austine bequeathed money in 1904 for what would open as his namesake school in 1912.
“Do you know who this is?” Woosley asked students in sign language as he showed them a photo of Bell. “He’s attributed with the invention of the telephone. Now we’re up to texting. It’s a metaphor for the change we see here.”
Rubella epidemics in the late 1950s and early 1960s increased the need for deaf education. Then congressional passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975 shifted Austine’s role from a residential center to public school consultant.
The institution, retaining a staff of 35 to continue several separate services for the deaf and hard of hearing, is exploring ways to make money by logging and solar-power generation, selling property and renting space to tenants as diverse as the University of Vermont Extension Service and New England Center for Circus Arts.
But having cut staff salaries 6 percent even before the layoffs — most set to start today — the institution doesn’t want to accept any more students until it can reinvent itself and rally support for the efforts.
“This is not goodbye, it’s see you later,” Carter closed his graduation speech. “We will all see this campus Austine strong.”
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