Regents look to sell Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School campus for $1

'We could actually make this thing work,' Vinton mayor says, with right partner

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The Iowa Board of Regents is considering selling its Vinton-based Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School campus to the city in which it sits for $1.

But Vinton city officials say the talks are just preliminary.

“I have a lot of concerns,” said Mayor John Watson. “We are certainly aware of the fact that the possibilities are unlimited. But, by the same token, the general cost of maintenance and upkeep could be enough to sink a small town’s budget pretty fast.”

Blind and visually impaired students served through regents programming haven’t been living on the 48-acre property since 2011. Instead, the 550 students receiving specialized services for vision loss are taught by specialists at local schools. The Vinton campus is used for administrative services and short-term campus and weekend activities.

“The board’s intent is to try and find a use for the campus that utilizes the space that’s available in a way that benefits the city of Vinton while at the same time freeing up scare resources that are currently being used to maintain the campus that no longer fits the mission of the IBSSS,” regents spokesman Josh Lehman said Tuesday.

Freed-up resources would be redirected toward services for visually impaired students across Iowa, he said.

“IBSSS has a rich heritage, which had strong influence on many of Iowa’s blind and visually impaired citizens and family members,” Lehman said. “It’s the board’s intent that whichever entity eventually becomes responsible for the campus will find ways to preserve the historical and sentimental significance of the campus.”

Lehman said a $1 price tag has been discussed but talks are ongoing. Vinton City Administrator Chris Ward confirmed the discussions but said the city hasn’t received any formal written offers from the board.

The state served students at the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton for more than 150 years — particularly between the 1930s and 1970s when education for visually impaired students was not easily accessible, according to 2010 Board of Regents documents outlining the school’s services.

But much changed educationally and socially in the 1970s, including passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that requires children — to the greatest extent possible — receive what they need in the environment that is closest to their peers without disabilities.

“These changes in beliefs and models have led to societal expectations that children will receive what is required from public education while being able to attend their local school,” the regents documents show.

Enrollment significantly declined — falling from 34 campus-based students in the 2004-2005 school year to just nine in the 2009-2010 term.

The board in 2010 reported residential program costs rose from $117,829 per student to $246,341 even as total residential costs were reduced from more than $3.7 million in 2006 to about $2.2 million in 2010.

Even though the Vinton campus is not any longer serving residential students, Lehman said its 11 buildings are functional and AmeriCorps has leased space for the past eight years. That lease provides nearly $600,000 in income.

“We are looking for an opportunity for them to continue to be housed on the campus,” he said of the national service program. “If the property is transferred, this lease would be transferred to the new owner of the property.”

Any new owner could lease out the rest of the space, Lehman said, and regent services and activities that had been offered at the Vinton site would be moved to a “nearby location in another city, which would provide housing and activity space, such as a public or commercial facility.”

That alternate location hasn’t been determined, Lehman said.

Because the Vinton property is tax exempt, it isn’t assessed. But Lehman said it’s insured for $41 million. The board spends about $175,000 annually for maintenance.

Mayor Watson said he, for one, could get excited about taking over the property “if we had a really genuinely good partner who wanted to lease out the general campus.”

“We could actually make this thing work,” he said. “But it’s scary if that partner is AmeriCorps, which only receives money on a yearly basis.”

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