Shannon Kirk knows how high the stakes are for children enrolled at North Carolina’s three residential schools for the deaf and blind.
In her case, the Gov. Morehead School for the Blind gave her son Johnathon, who is legally blind from a rare genetic disorder, confidence and skills he wouldn’t otherwise have.
Not only did he graduate last year as the school’s valedictorian, but he also began his college career studying computer science this fall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is living independently in the freshman dorms.
The staff at the Morehead school realized Johnathon’s potential and taught him that his blindness wasn’t going to hold him back from living a full life, Kirk said.
“I look at my son and see what a difference it makes in his life,” Kirk said. “I understand economics, but at the same time it’s important we provide these specialized services. These kids deserve an education too, just like all of us.”
The fates of deaf and blind children are being pitted against each other after the N.C. General Assembly, in the $19.7 billion state budget it passed this year, called for one of the three residential schools in the state to close.
The schools will cost the state $21 million a year to run, but only serve a little more than 200 students a year. That leaves the state paying more than $100,000 a year for a student – a price tag that caught the attention of legislators looking to make cuts.
The N.C. Department of Public Instruction is tasked with making a recommendation about which school to close, and is holding the last of its public hearings from 5:30 to 7 p.m. tonight at Raleigh’s City Hall. Previous hearings in Morganton and Wilson, where the state’s two schools for the deaf are located, included emotional pleas from students, parents and alumni of the school. Tonight’s hearing is expected to include a large input from the state’s blind community, because of the Morehead School’s location in Raleigh.
Comments can all be given online on DPI’s website  through Friday.
The potential closure has sent waves of concern throughout the disabled community, where the schools are seen as lifelines for some deaf and blind children unable to reach their potential in traditional school settings.
“It will be a death sentence,” said Gary Ray, who heads North Carolina’s chapter of the Federation of the Blind. “That may sound harsh, but not when you consider the unemployment rate among the blind is 70 percent. Any kid you don’t educate appropriately, then there’s no chance.”
Many students and families choose to integrate into their existing schools, instead of attending the boarding school setting of the residential schools. But disability rights advocates say the residential schools serve a special population of disabled students who often have compound disabilities, or are socially isolated or inadequately served in traditional school settings.
Missing from much of the discussion about the closure of a school has been what the state actually spends at the school.
Here’s a breakout, from DPI, of what each school costs to run.
- Gov. Morehead School for the Blind (Raleigh) – 45 students currently attend, has a staff of 122. Costs state $5.6 million a year to run.
- N.C. School for the Deaf  (Morganton) – 79 students attend, staff of 162. Operating costs of $8.7 million.
- Eastern N.C. School for the Deaf (Wilson) – 75 students, 166 staff members. Costs state $8.1 million a year to run.
The residential schools fill a need for children to learn skills that can help them cope with their disabilities in an environment where they won’t be ostracized by their peers, said Vicki Smith, director of Disability Rights North Carolina.
Proposals to close the schools come up every few years, Smith said, but have been headed off in the past when advocates are able to show that any savings of closing the schools would either be offset of the cost of educating the children, many of whom have compound disabilities, in traditional school settings.
That didn’t happen this year, and Smith fears that the financial cost of educating the children meant more to legislators than the long-term value of a specialized education could do for a blind or deaf child.
“It continues to demonstrate that legislators frequently don’t understand the needs of the disabled community at large,” Smith said. “They seem, as a body, unwilling to listen to that special perspective.”
Can’t make it to tonight’s hearing? Follow what’s going on through Twitter with @SarahOvaska .