School Taking Brunt of Budget Cuts Seen as Suspicious
The Sununu Youth Services Center (SYSC) educational services for the state’s most troubled youth may soon face legal challenges after 75% of targeted budget cuts are taken out on teaching staff. Services for middle school through high school youth are expected to greatly suffer once personnel reductions of the uniquely qualified teaching staff are completed.
SYSC is the state’s residential detention and school facility for youth ages 13 to 17 who have either been found to be delinquent (SYSC program) or are awaiting that determination (YDSU program). Both programs are approved by NH Dept. of Education Bureau of Special Education to serve students in all disability categories. The programs include academics, special education, electives and vocational training for the youth that are taught in four distinct educational settings within the institution.
“The legislature ordered that $1.25 million dollars be directly cut from SYSC’s budget,” said Diana Lacey, President of SEA/SEIU 1984. “The Legislature also decided to cut an additional $7 million dollars from all of DHHS.”
At issue is the SYSC administration’s strategy for making those budget cuts. “It defies logic that anyone would put 75% of the cuts on the department that educates the at-risk youth; it’s only going to hurt the kids. They need their education to become independent and successful adults,” said Brad Asbury, former SYSC employee and current SEA/SEIU 1984 manager working with the educators.
“It took tremendous work to make the school what it is today. Principal Claire Pstragowski has done a fine job and over the years we’ve seen the difference it’s made for the kids,” said Asbury.
“The teachers have worked tirelessly reaching out to state senators and representatives, executive councilors and the Governor to sound the alarm of what this cut will mean to the kids. Some also believe there is no coincidence in the administration’s choice to slash the teaching force,” said Jay Ward, Political Director at SEA/SEIU 1984.
Multiple meetings with the administration, area lawmakers, and Governor Maggie Hassan have failed to yield a more balanced approach to the execution of the SYSC specific budget cut. “We’ve suggested several ways to meet the savings requirement that have not been accepted, and remain suspicious that the teachers’ concerns that they were being specifically targeted are true,” said Ward.
Astutely, teachers had predicted this would happen in early 2012 – several months before legislators first raised the million plus cut in budget hearings. Newly assigned director to the center, Maggie Bishop, asked teachers at the time to provide unpaid, after school voluntary extracurricular programs to youth. When the teachers declined, due to legal liability and increased risk concerns, as well as labor law violation likelihood, Bishop expressed concern about the future.
“The teachers reached out to us after the director told them it would be difficult for her to justify their salaries and the cost of running the school in the future,” said Asbury. The warning given was taken seriously and a later consultation with HHS Commissioner, Nick Toumpas, soon revealed the teachers’ account of the discussion with Bishop wasn’t far off. “She was in that meeting and admitted she made the statements but that the teachers just took it the wrong way. Then she said she would issue a request for information to see if there was any interest in privatizing the school and what it would cost.”
The strategy, as described by Bishop in the meeting, would enable her to better manage a budgetary challenge lawmakers might give her in the following budget cycle.
“It was then that the teachers predicted the education department would be gutted in the new budget,” said Lacey. “More than twenty of them kept saying, she’s coming after us – just wait and see.”
Prior to moving the plan forward, Bishop sought to cut teacher pay by thirteen to twenty percent with an expectation that they would all remain at the school but for a few teaching layoffs. “We believe that violates current New Hampshire law and is in conflict with the prescribed tools for meeting budget cuts,” said SEA Attorney, Lauren Snow-Chadwick.
“Gutting the education department by a 30% reduction in teaching staff makes no sense. These kids need their teachers. It’s very disturbing to think this may have all started as retaliation,” said Lacey.
The current school provides full day instruction to 60-70 youth, with a potential capacity of over 100, through fully certified and highly talented, grade/subject specific teachers. The design came after a 1990’s class action lawsuit proved the youth’s constitutional rights were being violated because they were not receiving an appropriate education. The improvements weren’t easily won; a court retained jurisdiction of the suit’s settlement agreement after the plaintiffs raised concerns about the state’s continued compliance. Eventually, the plaintiffs and court agreed that the state succeeded in delivering an appropriate program.
It is likely, through this action, that the education program at the school will wind up in litigation again.
Interestingly The Center’s belief statement in a 2010 document states:
- It is our belief every student be enrolled into approved educational programs and courses respective of individual needs.
- It is our belief and practice that educational programs must be appropriate to the students’ academic potential, and competency-based
- It is our belief and practice to teach vocational education, which meets the needs of the communities while also meeting the needs and interest of students.