The N.C. House of Representatives got one step closer to closing the Governor Morehead School yesterday when it passed the first reading of the state budget bill.

Meanwhile supporters of the state’s only school for the blind protested the proposed closure Thursday afternoon. Approximately 60 people, including many alumni and parents, stood on the sidewalk along Ashe Avenue in front of the historic campus. Six-year-old Paige Strickland, a graduate of the Governor Morehead Preschool, stood beside her mother, holding her cane, chanting along with the crowd, “Don’t shut us down!” Passing cars offered honks of support, rallying the people who stood in the hot afternoon sun. They held signs that said, “Keep GMS Open,” “Why hurt our children to cut the deficit?” and “For sale: Blind school, $4 B or best offer.”

The proposal calls for the Morehead school to stop accepting new students to its K-12 program and move remaining students to either their local school districts or to one or both of the state’s schools for the deaf, located in Wilson and Morganton.

The state is roughly $4.6 billion short this year, which has prompted deep cuts to education and human services across the board. The proposed closoure of GMS is just one of many ways children, educators and the disabled would be affected.

Those who gathered to support GMS say they’re concerned the quality of education will suffer if blind and deaf students are placed in the same school. They also worry that a dismantling of the GMS campus would mean an end to its ability to provide expertise and assistance to thousands of blind students in public schools statewide. The fate of the Governor Morehead Preschool program, which serves approximately 800 children from birth to age 5, is also uncertain.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said John DeLuca, a graduate of the GMS who went on to attend Duke University and Stanford Law School. Now an administrative court judge, he spent 10 years supervising the Division of Services for the Blind at what is now the Department of Health and Human Resources. “Nobody says it’s about improving the quality of services, or even keeping them the same. It’s purely a money-driven decision. The kids who are here now are here because their local public schools were not able to adequately serve them.”

“The battle in the House is lost,” said Gary Ray of the North Carolina Federation of the Blind. He said advocates will focus their efforts on legislative representatives that will work on the budget when it goes into conference, ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions. The Senate version currently calls for deep budget cuts to the blind and deaf schools, but does not mention a closure or consolidation.

House members debated the budget throughout the day and into the evening on Thursday. Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke County), whose district includes Morganton, introduced an amendment (PDF, 568 KB) that calls for a joint legislative task force on educational services for the deaf and blind. It would take the decision on whether and how to consolidate the schools out of the hands of DHHS and into the hands of a set of lawmakers and political appointees, with deaf and blind educators and graduates of the schools in question included among the non-voting members.

That amendment was not voted on Thursday night. It awaits a fiscal note from legislative staff. If that note comes through by the time the House convenes at 8 p.m. today, Blackwell says he will reintroduce it.

Update: Blackwell’s amendment passed and is part of the House version of the budget bill.