Vouchers may help students but imperil public schools

By Rick Green

Laconia Daily Sun

LACONIA — School districts could lose $5.8 million in state aid under a bill allowing public funds to be spent on private education or home schooling, according to a study by a policy analysis group.

The first year costs of Senate Bill 193 are projected to be $55,014 for Berlin and $16,362 for the Gorham, Randolph, Shelburne Cooperative District according to the study by Reaching Higher N.H., a nonpartisan education policy nonprofit.

Dan Vallone, director of engagement for the group, said the organization does not oppose or endorse the Senate-passed bill, which could be considered by the full House as soon as Jan. 3.

“We're just saying what a plain text reading of the bill indicates and we put it out there so people can make the best decision on what it says, what it means and what the practical implications are from a financial standpoint,” he said Thursday.

How it works

The measure would allow parents who work with an approved scholarship organization to receive the bulk of the state’s per-pupil adequate education grant, which is about $3,600, to be spent on private education or home-schooling costs.

This money would no longer be available to the school district, so districts would see a loss of state aid if the bill were to pass. District officials say many of their costs are fixed and unaffected by a marginal reduction in students.

The bill would provide stabilization grants to districts for the loss of state aid exceeding one-quarter of 1 percent of the district’s voted appropriations in the prior year.

But since these grants would not cover all lost funds, costs would remain. Manchester led the list with a cost of $432,009, followed by Nashua at $407,388 and Concord at $213,684.

Stabilization grants

Assuming a 3 percent participation rate, overall state costs of stabilization grants to school districts would be $2.2 million in the first year (2018), growing to $10.1 million in year five, totaling $31 million over five years.

A comparable program in Indiana has a 3 percent participation rate. Also, unmet demand for scholarships provided in a New Hampshire tax credit program would also indicate a 3 percent participation rate could be seen here.

The bill would also allow students to join the program after being in a private preschool or kindergarten. New state spending for this group would be $2.58 million, the study found.

Participation, accountability

Most local families could meet participation requirements in the legislation that sets maximum family income at three times the federal poverty level, or $73,800 for a family of four.

In its study, the organization said the bill lacks clarity about academic accountability.

“SB 193 contains accountability requirements that appear to be in contradiction with each other,” the report said. “The bill seems to compel any student who selects a voucher to take the annual statewide assessment. However, the bill also contains language indicating that the accountability requirements for vouchers students could be satisfied with an annual portfolio review and one other measurement tool agreed upon by the parents, the commissioner of education, resident superintendent, or private school principal. This issue complicates efforts to assess related potential academic impacts.”

The report also said there's nothing in the bill to prohibit the program's oversight commission from having a financial interest in education providers that could receive public money through the program.

Bill backers

Backers of the bill say it would empower parents to make the best education choices for their children. Some children might encounter bullying in a public school, or not have access to the best curriculum for their needs.

Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, the bill's author, said the measure would improve education outcomes.

“What we know nationwide is that any time you create any type of competition in education, you get a better product,” he said. “By introducing competition, you'll get better-trained students. This has happened all around the country, and test scores in nearby public schools have increased.”

Backers also say the financial effect on school districts would be minimal and comparable to the loss of students and state money seen in the yearly churn when students move away.

The Berlin Sun contributed to this story.

Council hears about new Medication Assisted Treatment Program

By Barbara Tetreault

BERLIN — Last year, 13 babies born at Androscoggin Valley Hospital showed symptoms of drug withdrawal or what is formally known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. That figure represents almost 14 percent of the 93 babies born at the hospital in 2016.

Believing that too many babies are being born into families where drug abuse is present, Coos County Family Health Services and Androscoggin Valley Hospital are starting a medication assisted treatment program for people struggling with addiction.

Outlining the new program to the city council last week, Coos County Family Health Services CEO Ken Gordon called neonatal abstinence syndrome a “terrible tragedy.” Babies exposed to drugs in the womb can show symptoms of withdrawal such as tremors, irritability, sleep problems, seizures, tight muscle tone, sweating, diarrhea and fever. Premature birth, birth defects and low birth weight are also possibilities.

Gordon said the two organizations felt they had to fashion a response and have been working to develop the medication assisted treatment program since this summer. The program will be available next month.

The medication assisted treatment program has four components: substance abuse counseling, mental health treatment, social work support, and the use of medications like Vitriol and Suboxone to help alleviate physical withdrawal symptoms.
Participants must sign a treatment agreement that requires them to attend regularly scheduled medical appointments, participate in substance abuse counseling, and agree to unscheduled urine tests and pill counts. Participants found diverting or selling their medication will be discharged from the program and reported to the police.

Gordon said the program will start by serving pregnant women, new mothers and their partners. He said it will start small — serving 10 to 24 people the first year with hopes of gradually expanding to offer the program to existing patients of the two organizations.

Mayor Paul Grenier said the program is needed, but said he did not want it to become a court diversion program. He said it should be used to help people who really want to get clean and not for people trying to dodge a legal issue.

With limited slots, Gordon said people will have to be motivated to be selected. He said the two organizations discussed the program with Berlin police.

Police Chief Peter Morency said he has seen people on Suboxone for 10 years without a plan. He said the medication component has to be strictly monitored and guided because the medications can be used to get high. The police chief said some users simply travel from clinic to clinic to get medication. But he also agreed on the need for the program.

Grenier said it is important to create an environment where kids are not born addicted. He said breaking the cycle — even one kid at a time — is worth the effort. Councilors Roland Theberge and Mike Gentili agreed that the program is worth implementing.

Gordon said funding for the program comes from a complicated mix including commercial and public insurance and federal grant funds.

“We all have a vested interest in helping kids get off to a good start,” Gordon said in a follow-up interview.

New book details life and death of Groveton Papers Company

By Barbara Tetreault

GROVETON — “You had a Job For Life,” an oral history of the destruction of a mill town, details the life and death of the Groveton Papers Mill. But Jamie Sayen’s book could easily have been about Berlin and other paper towns that saw their economies collapse when foreign competition and shrinking markets closed paper mills across the country. The stories are hauntingly similar. Thirty miles west of Berlin, Groveton shared a workforce and for a period, common ownership, with the mills in the Androscoggin Valley.

Sayen will discuss his book next Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 6 p.m. at the Fortier Library at White Mountains Community College in a presentation sponsored by the college, Berlin Public Library, and Berlin and Coos County Historical Society. A slideshow of photographs of the mill and clips from interviews with former workers will accompany the talk. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be provided.

A kick-off event is being held Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Rialto Theater in Lancaster at 7 p.m.

The 270-page book traces the history of the mill from its beginnings in 1891 to its abrupt closing in 2007. Sayen describes the ownership changes and how market forces lead to the demise of the Groveton mill.

Mostly, however, he tells the story of Groveton Papers through the words and stories of the people who worked there.

Sayen interviewed more than 50 former employees, ranging from former owner James C. Wemyss Jr., and mill manager David Atkinson to paper machine operators like David Miles and tissue worker Pauline Labrecque. He collected more than 100 hours of taped interviews.

“The Groveton mill workers told stories about the daily operation of a hot, noisy, dangerous workplace that range from the comical to the tragic. They described an extraordinarily tight-knit mill community,” Sayen said in an email.

The book, in fact, traces its origin to a graduate course in ethnography Sayen was taking at Plymouth State University in 2009-2010. Students were assigned to develop an oral history project and he selected the Groveton mill, just a few miles from his home in Stratford.

“I so enjoyed getting to know former mill workers and learning their stories that early on I knew the project would develop into a book,” he said.

The title for the book came from an interview with Lawrence “Lolly” LaPointe, a 30-year employee at the mill.

“I think back then everybody had a good job, was making good money. I don’t know if everybody was happy, but at least they had a pretty secure place to work. ... Once you got in the mill back then, unless you chose to leave there, you had a job for life. ... We lived right across the tracks, and I used to bitch about the sound of the mill in the summer when the windows are open, but it was a pretty good sound when you was working here. I didn’t have to drive to work. Five minutes, I was in my job. Unbelievable,” LaPointe recalled in the book.

Probably the most colorful character in the book is Wemyss, whose grandfather purchased the mill in 1940. Wemyss, labeled the Crown Prince by Sayen, would remain involved with the mill in some form for 50 years before retiring in 1998. He had, workers said, an intuitive understanding of the papermaking process. The book described Wemyss’ temper and his legendary outbursts when he would throw his jacket on the floor and jump and scream at workers and his managers. But workers also noted that he promoted locals to top positions, cared about the community enough to move there, and worked hard to keep the mill running.

Sayen describes how the ingenuity of the mill workers managed to keep the aging mill competitive and their pride in continuing to put out an excellent product even after Wausau Paper announced it was closing the plant. He also reports the bitterness the former workers feel towards Wausau for selling the property with a covenant prohibiting its future use as a paper mill.

“In nearly every interview, former mill workers expressed bitterness toward the last mill owner. Most of them cited the covenant as the cruelest blow,” Sayen wrote.

Sayen has spent the last three decades “as a grassroots forest and wilderness activist” and in the book he offers his vision for the future. He calls for building an economy that relies on smaller scale low technology producing a diverse array of niche, value-added products. Pointing to the empty storefronts on Main Street in Groveton, Sayen urges people to shop locally and calls for economic development programs to support locally owned businesses. He proposes living simply to reduce our carbon footprint and restoring mature forests.

This is Sayen’s second book. In 1985, he published “Einstein in America: The Scientist's Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima” about his next door neighbor growing up in Princeton, N.J.

Sayen will also discuss his book Sunday, Dec. 10, from 7:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. at the American Legion Post 17 in Groveton during the Legion’s monthly Sunday breakfast. The event is open to everyone with breakfast $8 for adults and $3 for children.

“You had a Job for Life” was published by University Press of New England. Sayen will have copies of the book for sale at his presentations.

Editor's note: Barbara Tetreault's father was among the former workers interviewed by Sayen for his book.

UNH research finds hope in New England’s North Country

DURHAM — While residents of northern New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont remain optimistic about their quality of life, there is broad agreement that a lack of job opportunities, drug abuse and population decline are problems that need to be addressed for that optimism to continue, according to recent surveys by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

“These social, economic and employment woes are not unique to the North Country, and in fact can be found in many of the rural areas of these three states and in other regions of the country as well,” the researchers said. “In some respects, the North Country’s rural, mountainous landscape offers potential advantage, not just for amenity development but lifestyle attractions that could draw other employers or for renewable energy.”

Hit hard by the national decline in natural-resource and manufacturing jobs, North Country communities in northern New Hampshire and bordering areas of Maine and Vermont continue to face challenges in restructuring their economies. A 2008 study classified Coos County, along with Oxford County in Maine, as “amenity/decline” regions, a common pattern in rural America where historically resource-dependent places experience decline in their traditional industries, even while natural amenities present new opportunities for growth in areas such as tourism or amenity-based in-migration. Complicating this transition, there is often out-migration of young adults seeking jobs and financial stability elsewhere, as new industries in rural areas tend toward seasonal employment or require different kinds of skills. Many of the questions on this survey, conducted in 2017, asking North Country residents about their perceptions, hopes and concerns regarding this region had been asked on earlier surveys in 2001 and 2010, providing a unique comparative perspective on what has changed or stayed the same.

The surveys were conducted in Coos and Grafton counties in New Hampshire, Oxford County in Maine and Essex County in Vermont. Positive views of North Country life have mostly held steady, or in some cases improved, over the past 10 years.

The researchers found views on economic development varied from county to county. Places currently having less development see tourism and recreation, light manufacturing, independent small businesses and forest-based industry as most important to their future.

Lack of job opportunities continues to stand out as the top problem, but with a significant decline in the percentage of respondents saying so, from 96 percent in 2010 to 86 percent in 2017, indicating an improvement in people’s views of employment potential.

The survey found that people viewed drug abuse and overdoses as “formidable” problems in the North Country and only getting worse. In fact, the survey states that one study found that drug abuse among the youth in Coos County is higher than national levels. The perceived importance of manufacturing or sales of illegal drugs in Coos jumped from 55 percent in 2010 to 75 percent in 2017.

Declining population as people move away is another problem. On the post-recession survey in 2010, this reached its highest level at 72 percent, then slightly declined to 68 percent in 2017, still well above pre-recession levels. Concern about poverty or homelessness, and about health and social services, stand at lower levels but are slightly increasing.

More encouraging signs are the significant declines in concern about school quality, affordable housing, and violent or property crime. Other sources indicate that Coos County has the lowest reported serious and violent crime rates in New Hampshire.

The research was conducted by Lawrence Hamilton, professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the Carsey School; Linda Fogg, sociology graduate student; and Curt Grimm, deputy director of the Carsey School and a research associate professor of anthropology.

The Carsey School of Public Policy conducts research, leadership development and engaged scholarship relevant to public policy. They address pressing challenges, striving for innovative, responsive and equitable solutions at all levels of government and in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors.