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Employees speak out against schools for the deaf and the blind

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By MARLA PISCIOTTA
For The State Journal

Campus improvement as well as furthering the education of staff members has brought focus again on the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.

The state Board of Education met March 12, and a discussion about the changes was listed on its agenda.

Regarding funding for the first phase of the improvement plan, school superintendent Lynn Boyer said the West Virginia Legislature chose, through a concurrent resolution, to transfer WVSDB's request for $8.4 million to the School Building Authority.

"In the legislative resolution, (House Concurrent Resolution 92) they said this was a state school and the School Building Authority should be using its money toward assisting the WVSDB," Boyer said. 

The resolution did not get fully adopted during the 2014 legislative session, having stalled in the Senate after passing the House of Delegates.

The entire first phase of the proposal is $21 million, which includes construction of the residential cottages on campus and a student center that includes a cafeteria, infirmary, media center and offices for occupational therapists, audiologists and physical therapists.

"We are very happy for the attention given to this by the Legislature," Boyer said. "I'll be working with the SBA over the next week to create a proposal that includes them in greater funding for this whole project."

In the meantime, 11 child care workers at the WVSDB are upset, saying their jobs are in jeopardy due to their education status.

The situation began this past week when a mandatory meeting was called by Boyer.

The child care workers, who wished to remain anonymous, said they were under the impression the meeting was to get input regarding changes on the campus.

"We've been told all along that no one would be losing their job," said one worker. "Then when we went in to the meeting (March 5), we were told after 2015 there would be no child care workers."

The paperwork handed out at the meeting explained that the current child care worker position would be phased out on July 1, 2015, and would be replaced with the position of residential care specialist.

In essence, their jobs as child care workers will no longer exist after July 1, 2015.

The replacement jobs will require an associate degree in child development, psychology, social work or related fields or an employees' written intention to acquire the degree within three years of being hired.

According to the workers, Boyer said existing child care workers can apply for the new positions. The workers said they can start taking courses beginning this summer or agree that they have intentions to get the associate of arts degree after being offered a new job.

"They are trying to railroad us out and make positions for deaf people," another worker said. "Our experience means nothing.

"They called us to the meeting like sheep to a slaughter."

Many of the workers say they either can't afford to take college classes or are too old and don't feel they could handle going to school again.

Some child care workers said they would look into the classes.

"Even if we get a degree, from what we're told if someone comes in off the street that is blind or deaf they will get the job over us," a third worker said.

Concern for the feelings of the children and length of their tenure also is of concern to the workers.

"I don't know what burns me up the most — losing my job or the suffering of the kids losing people that have cared for them so long," a fourth worker said. "This is the most disgusted I've been with this school in all the 18 years I've been here."

Other workers said they had been blindsided and lied to. Several workers called their union to see what could be done about the situation, and some others say they will have to leave their jobs and move away from Romney.

There are other workers who say, because of their ages, they will have to retire.

The workers attending the meeting were given a copy of the residential care special job description. It includes a list of general responsibilities, qualifications, function and duties.

The recommendation to change from child care workers to residential care specialists was up for debate during the West Virginia Board of Education meeting March 12.

On restructuring of WVSDB residential program personnel, the agenda reads: 

"The WVSDB proposes transitioning the auxiliary personnel position of child care worker, the employees who work in the dorms with the residential students during their non-instructional time. 

"The new position will require an Associate of Arts (AA) degree in child development, psychology, social work or a related field or a written commitment to obtain the degree at personal expense within three years of date of hire… ."

Boyer said the focus at WVSDB is to improve the quality of the total experience the student has at the schools.

"We focus on improving the educational process of the children in addition to ensuring they are safe and secure," Boyer said. "What we are asking of the persons in these new positions is to bring a higher level of knowledge and skills in literacy and math and a greater understanding of child development, behavior management, impact of deafness or visual impairment on learning and social development, and communication among others."

Boyer said Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College has developed classes that would take four years to complete and would begin this summer.

She said anyone interested in the positions could start taking classes then and have until three years after they're hired to finish the degree courses.

"Each of the new positions will get approximately an $8,000 increase from where the child care workers are being paid now," Boyer said about the cost of the courses. "This salary will be applied immediately upon hire. An employee would not have to wait until the degree is completed.

"The 60-hour program at Eastern is $4,300, but many staff already have course credits which will reduce that cost over time."

Boyer said Eastern is working on ways to help with tuition and books for the child care workers who decide to take the classes.

"This process will raise the level of knowledge and skills that workers directly involved with children in the dorms bring to that work," Boyer said. "Experience to date will always have an impact on hiring. 

"The work the child care workers have done has not been done for nothing. What they have learned and done in the past will help them when they apply for the job."

Boyer said if someone applies for the residential care specialist positions, he will be asked if he ever worked in a dorm or worked with children.

"Persons who have that experience will give answers different from those who have no experience working with children," Boyer said. 

Boyer said because of the changes at the campus, enrollment is up 20 percent.

"Because of our emphasis on improving education experience of the children, we began to extend instruction into the residential program," Boyer said. "We tried other means through individual positions over the last two years. 

"What became clear is that we need a standard of knowledge and skills that would allow us to take the learning process to another level."

Boyer said children come to WVSDB behind. 

"We have to work at every opportunity to progress," she said. "We need a skill set in our residential staff that is not necessarily present there now, but we are willing to work over the next three years to make that happen."