Things at the Sununu Youth Services Center seemed to calm down after former Director, Bill Fenniman, left his post and an interim Director, Jay Apicelli, was appointed. At the time, SEA members heralded the appointment of Apicelli, as he was a long time state employee that was incredibly dedicated to juvenile justice services.
Months later, Juvenile Justice Services was merged into the Division for Children, Youth and Families by HHS Commissioner, Nicholas Toumpas. Apicelli left state service, and Maggie Bishop was named director at SYSC. The change brought a sharp contrast in operational philosophy to bear at the youth correctional facility, so sharp that the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board heard more than two hours of testimony this morning about the changes being experienced in the center.
Workers at the center met with local State Senators and Executive Councilors over the summer to discuss the dramatic shift. Those discussions began right on the heels of a newly approved state budget that targets more than $1 million in cuts specifically on the center. But rather than separate operational issues from financial issues, as is often done in state budget battles, the workers focused on how youth are being impacted.
The meetings reached a new level of engagement Thursday as the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board, chaired by Senator Sharon Carson, held its first meeting in years. Attending Board members heard reports of the fallout happening to youth and workers as the conflict between philosophical operational approaches through the past couple of years has once again made the center’s day to day atmosphere like a powder keg. Senator David Boutin offered compelling testimony about the problems at SYSC and how staffers there seem to be paying the price for an agency that doesn’t really fit well within the overall Health and Human Services umbrella. “This is a correctional facility but it’s not being operated like one,” said Boutin. “It needs to be run by someone that has a solid background in corrections and juvenile justice, and I think it needs to be an appointment made by Governor and Council.”
Four SYSC workers explained what they have been going through at the center more recently, and what things were like when there was better leadership on board. A large threat to workers came just over a week ago, when teachers at the center were informed by Director Maggie Bishop that their pay would be cut by several thousand dollars over the next two years. The teachers were hired with pay enhancements of 15% to 25% due to a class action lawsuit settled by the State several years ago. As part of Bishop’s plan to meet the required budget cuts, she will reduce the pay enhancements by 50% beginning in October, and then a final reduction of them will take place next year. Bishop promised to work on an upgrade for the teaching staff but that is far from certain. The SEA will legally challenge the plan to cut the educators’ pay as numerous hiring documents revealed the State never time limited the pay or put prospective employees on notice of its so-called temporary nature. “While we appreciate the fact that the Director quickly notified the employees of her plan, it is clear the financial impact to the workers would be devastating. We researched the issue and feel strongly that the agency needs to make a different decision. Everyone knows the center has been underfunded for years and that it can’t afford more budget cuts,” said SEA President Lacey.
At the close of the hearing, Lacey asked the Board for help. “We will challenge the pay cuts but I have to be honest, the fight will take months and maybe more than a year. These teachers can’t wait that long. They can’t sustain a huge pay cut like that. They came to work here, left other jobs, on the basis of the wages they were offered in writing. Nowhere were they informed those wages were temporary. Please ask SYSC to hold off on their budget cutting plans until this Board can be briefed on them and help figure out what’s best for the Center,” said Lacey.
Senator Carson thanked everyone for their testimony and promised to contact HHS and Governor Hassan about the concerns raised. SEA members in attendance thanked the Board members and Senator Boutin as well. We will keep you informed on the progress at SYSC.