A1 A1
breaking top story
Keene State ending 6 academic programs after final faculty cuts
  • Updated

Keene State College has suspended several academic programs after cutting 25 positions, mostly in layoffs, as part of its multiyear plan to shrink its faculty and eliminate a $14 million budget deficit, college officials said Friday.

The moves end the college’s “realignment” effort, which formally began in 2018 and has included several rounds of faculty buyouts meant to adjust to a smaller student body, President Melinda Treadwell said.

The latest cuts, which were announced Thursday, include seven faculty members who accepted voluntary buyouts from the college, according to Keene State spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte. They also include 18 in low-enrollment academic programs who were laid off, she said.

“This is a very hard decision for any institution,” Treadwell said in a Zoom interview. “Our hope was to provide significant support to those faculty and to make the decisions we must … in a way that effects and reflects our values.”

With the faculty cuts, Keene State expects its budget deficit to drop below $5 million for the upcoming academic year, she said. That gap had swelled to $14 million over the past year, as enrollment at the college fell further due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to saving $3 million annually from the latest faculty cuts, Treadwell said Keene State is shedding a substantial sum in “curricular efficiency work” that involves reducing professors’ administrative work in favor of teaching and other student engagement.

“We’ve actually exceeded the budget goal we needed to get to for this next year, and I believe we’ll actually go even further as we move through the year,” she said.

The cuts will suspend several academic programs that Treadwell said have had “historically low enrollment,” with Keene State not admitting new students to those disciplines but allowing students already enrolled in them to graduate with those degrees.

The programs that are ending include American studies, geography, physics, and women’s and gender studies, in addition to minors in information studies and art history, according to Ricaurte. Minors in physics and in women’s and gender studies will remain available, she said. A limited number of teacher-certification programs will also close, she said.

As part of the latest round of buyouts, which Treadwell announced last month, faculty members had about two weeks to decide whether to accept voluntary separation packages that include 1½ years of salary and 5½ years of health insurance, she told The Sentinel at the time. Those offers, which followed a separate series of buyouts over the past year that resulted in a net loss of 14 professors, were available to faculty in all departments.

Treadwell had said that with the latest buyouts, the college hoped to eliminate up to 25 positions to increase its student-to-faculty ratio to 16-to-one, compared to the current 13-to-one.

“We can’t be stable with a 13-to-one [ratio],” she said in June. “If we can get to 16-to-one, we’re in a very, very good position to come out of this. And unlike competitors and other institutions eliminating dozens of programs, that’s not what we’re looking at. We’re trying to do very measured work where we have excess, to reduce some of that excess.”

To achieve those reductions, however, Keene State discharged 18 faculty members in addition to the seven who were given buyouts. The laid-off employees were offered the same salary and medical benefits included in the buyout deals, according to Ricaurte.

Two other faculty members requested but were not granted buyouts because they teach in popular programs, she said. The college is also hiring seven new faculty members in popular academic programs this fall as it looks to put “more investment into programs that students are seeking,” she said.

Loren Launen, a biology professor and president of the Keene State College Education Association, the school’s faculty union, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

Treadwell acknowledged that the latest cuts were an “emotional moment” for many at the college. Keene State officials have met regularly with faculty members in recent years to share updates on their deficit-reduction work, she said, adding that she has offered to discuss the recent layoffs with faculty and their union representatives.

“These are painful conversations, as they should be,” she said. “They’re painful for me; they’re painful for affected people … I’m very proud of this campus and our ability to make hard decisions and work together through them.”

Treadwell said she’s confident the college will eliminate its remaining budget deficit by 2023, explaining that officials have already identified other costs that can be trimmed to help meet that goal. Keene State is also part of efforts across New Hampshire’s university system to consolidate operations and reduce spending by that time, she said.

“Our individual planning sets us up for that,” she said. “We’re ahead of some of our colleagues just because we started this work earlier than the university system.”

Across the state’s university system — which also includes the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University and Granite State College — 488 staff members took buyouts this year, Ricaurte told The Sentinel previously.

In addition to more cost-saving measures, Keene State expects enrollment — a large source of its revenue — to rise for the next academic year, since incoming students have put down deposits at a higher rate than last year, according to Ricaurte. The college, which is accepting deposits throughout the summer, anticipates that trend will continue, she said.

Keene State had just under 3,350 students in the 2019-20 academic year, compared to nearly 5,000 students in the fall of 2013.

Treadwell took over as president in July 2017 at a time when the college faced a multimillion-dollar budget deficit and made about $7.5 million in cuts heading into the fall of that year. Keene State also began planning for long-term financial viability at that time, which has since included multiple rounds of faculty and staff buyouts.

After making what she said will be the last of those cuts, Treadwell said college officials are turning to strategic planning for the future, including the joint work with the rest of the state’s university system.

“This college is now done talking about realignment and response and [is instead] talking about the future of what the needs are for the city of Keene and for the country,” she said. “That’s where our focus is laser-centered.”

top story
After its Manchester campus closes, Keene charter school forges ahead

After Making Community Connections’ decision this past spring to consolidate its two campuses, the public charter school’s top administrator says he’s optimistic about the future of the Keene site.

“I think it’s hopeful. I think it’s promising,” Executive Director Chris O’Reilly said of the school’s financial outlook. “We have basically stabilized our enrollment at around 50 students. We have the utmost confidence that we will increase enrollment over the next year. Our model is well known in the area, it’s established.”

The school, which is also known as MC2 (pronounced “em-cee-squared,” like Einstein’s energy-mass formula), began as part of the Monadnock Regional School District in 2002 and ran through 2010. MC2 established its Manchester campus as a public charter school in 2012, and the Keene site opened in 2015 in the Center at Colony Mill (formerly known as the Center at Keene).

Charter schools are public, tuition-free schools that offer an alternative to traditional public schools. In New Hampshire, charter schools receive roughly $7,100 per student from the state each year, with additional funding typically coming from school-specific fundraising efforts.

MC2’s board of trustees decided in April to close the Manchester campus, but maintain the location in Keene, though O’Reilly said Thursday that the school is looking to move to a different Elm City space.

“There was a decline in enrollment both in Manchester and Keene, with the majority of the decline being in Manchester,” O’Reilly said. Board member Amanda McLellan told The Sentinel in April that the Manchester campus had 38 high-school students and seven staff members, compared to roughly 50 students and 11 staff in Keene.

With the decision to consolidate the two campuses, the board also eliminated the position of chief education officer, and named O’Reilly MC2’s executive director. The position, he said, is roughly equivalent to superintendent of a public school district, overseeing various administrative responsibilities. He’ll also remain the school leader in Keene, a role that is similar to a principal.

As executive director, O’Reilly said he has three top priorities: successfully implementing MC2’s reopening plan when the new school year begins July 26, effectively spending the school’s federal COVID-19 relief funds based on community input and further developing the school’s connections to the surrounding community.

The most immediate of these priorities, MC2’s reopening plan, is well underway, O’Reilly said. The school on Wednesday released a draft plan, and is seeking staff, student and family input. O’Reilly said he will use this feedback to fine-tune the plan before presenting it to the board at its July 19 meeting.

“It’s not terribly different than the plan that we had during COVID,” he said. “We still maintain distancing, we still are following all the protocols recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services, by the CDC. Masking is the big question.”

School officials will continue to monitor COVID-19 transmission rates in the area before making a final decision on when to require masks in school settings, O’Reilly said. The draft plan calls for students and staff to wear masks whenever they cannot maintain physical distancing.

O’Reilly added that MC2 intends to return to fully in-person classes at the start of the new academic year. The school offered a hybrid model for most of last year, but ended the term fully in-person, which public schools statewide also did at Gov. Chris Sununu’s order.

And as MC2 continues to seek public input on its reopening plan, O’Reilly said the school has also been working with families, staff and students to determine how best to spend the roughly $1 million it has received through several rounds of federal COVID-relief packages.

Based on this feedback, MC2 has already developed a number of plans for this money, including additional outdoor programs, the creation of a new part-time family liaison position to assist families with academic and social-emotional needs, mental health supports for students and staff members and an afterschool academic support program to help students who fell behind during the pandemic.

The school also hopes to expand its makerspace, which students use for a variety of hands-on lessons and projects. Several groups of students have used the space to launch their own businesses, including one that sells handmade wooden pens, and another that offers greeting cards and other stationery, O’Reilly said.

“And our intention was to build this makerspace out, to actually share it with the community. So, maybe rent some space to people who wanted to come in in the evenings or weekends to use the equipment for their own personal use, such as many of the makerspaces do across the country,” he said. “… So that is still our hope, to do that.”

This vision of the makerspace should be more attainable if MC2 moves to a new location, which O’Reilly said the school is in the process of doing.

“We’re negotiating terms for a new space in Keene that we intend to move into in the next school year,” he said, adding that the new location would also reduce overhead costs for the school, and give it enough room to hopefully grow to its target enrollment of up to 120. (He declined to say where in Keene the new space is.)

MC2 is also in the process of re-launching its internship program, which is mandatory for students in each of the four “phases” they complete to graduate. The program paused during the pandemic, but students in the past have interned at local businesses including the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, Keene Day Care Center and Toadstool Bookshop.

“The primary task at hand is to re-launch everything, to get back to where we were,” O’Reilly said. “But my hope is that in the process, we’re able to make even more connections in the community to expand our internship sites so we can get more of our students out.”

This level of community engagement, he added, remains central to MC2’s mission.

“The name isn’t just a name,” he said. “It’s what we do. It’s just part of how we operate on a daily basis.”

State’s medicinal marijuana industry has stabilized, but barriers to growth remain

The video announcement was framed like a victory address. Standing before a woodpile, Prime Alternative Treatment Center CEO Keenan Blum gave the center’s Facebook followers a breathless update: The New Hampshire medical marijuana dispensary was lowering its prices.

Prime had increased its growing capacity, bumped up its offering of cannabis strains, and reduced expenses, Blum said.

“In short, we are now able to grow more high-quality flower at a lower cost than before,” he said in the video, released Tuesday.

The announcement was welcome news to most of Prime’s customers — and signaled a new phase for the state’s medicinal marijuana industry.

Five years after New Hampshire’s first therapeutic cannabis dispensaries opened their doors, the number of patients in the state has climbed considerably, from just over 2,000 in 2016 to just under 12,000 in May 2021, figures from the Department of Health and Human Services show.

And two of the state’s three organizations, known as “alternative treatment centers,” are expanding on their own. In April, Prime ATC opened a dispensary in Chichester, and Temescal Wellness launched a dispensary in Keene.

But industry officials and advocates say dispensaries in the state still face barriers to growth and trail other states with medicinal marijuana when it comes to the percentage of people in the state who are patients.

New Hampshire has just under 1 percent of its population registered as medical marijuana patients; states such as California, New Mexico and Arizona have close to 5 percent, data from the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, shows — though all of those states have legalized cannabis for personal use.

Among states that have not fully legalized marijuana but do allow for medicinal use, New Hampshire still lags: Florida and Pennsylvania each have around 2.6 percent, for example.

And even as prices are falling at some Granite State dispensaries, they’re still higher than neighboring states, all of which have legalized cannabis and impose lighter restrictions on their therapeutic cannabis organizations.

One Facebook user took Blum to task over the price reduction, drawing a comparison to Maine, whose medical marijuana prices are still cheaper for patients.

“I’m sure if you asked patients we would have preferred ounces well under $300,” wrote Zach Williams. “When will patients be relieved of having to pay at or over $300 for an ounce of meds?”

Cannabis advocates say the question of price encapsulates the crossroads New Hampshire’s industry has reached. Since 2016, dispensaries have built up nonprofit businesses, survived start-up woes, attracted loyal customers, and multiplied their growing and distributing capacities. But they still are a long way from their ultimate goal: a normalized, widely known medical service.

“I still run into so many people who, I tell them what I do for work and they have no idea cannabis is even in New Hampshire,” said Sian Leininger, the director of retail for Temescal Wellness.

Currently, New Hampshire’s therapeutic cannabis law allows people who suffer from a number of conditions, including ALS, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, Crohn’s disease and others to apply to become a qualifying patient. Patients must be diagnosed by a medical provider in order to receive a registry ID card; those who do may use that card at one of the state’s dispensaries.

For the dispensaries, participation and business has grown considerably since therapeutic cannabis was first legalized in 2013. Some of that has been a result of state policy. A decision by lawmakers to expand the program to chronic pain patients in 2017 led to a near doubling of patients within a year — from 3,493 in 2017 to 6,480 in 2018, according to DHHS.

But the growth has also come from the organizations themselves, expanding their facilities and growing operations over five years after enduring high entry costs. Now that the number of customers has increased, some of those costs have been mitigated just recently.

“We have a few thousand patients, and it’s certainly easier to balance the books when you have a few thousand patients than when you have 1,000 (or) 500, which was the case not that long ago,” said Matt Simon, the newly appointed director of public and government relations for Prime ATC.

Therapeutic cannabis facilities have had to rely on debt in order to grow, in part due to the money-raising limitations of their nonprofit status, which the state mandates.

“It’s been a slow and gradual process of trying to make this program really viable and workable for patients,” Simon said. “... There were a lot of startup costs involved and not a big base of patients to actually sell cannabis to get money coming in, so it was difficult.”

Leininger agreed.

“It is an extremely capital intensive industry, so getting started is always a challenge,” she said.

While the number of patients in the state initially surged year after year — climbing from 2,089 in 2016 to 6,480 in 2018 to 10,688 in 2020 — that annual bump has started to slow. During the pandemic, the state added 1,260 patients from June 2020 to May 2021 — half the number of previous years.

Still, as the industry begins to stabilize, barriers to access remain, providers say. Insurers in New Hampshire, like other states, don’t cover the use of therapeutic cannabis, and federal laws against cannabis prohibit Medicaid from covering it as well.

“That’s kind of a common frustration for patients: that their insurance won’t cover this but it will cover other medications that may give them a lot more harmful side effects,” Leininger said.

The alternative treatment centers in New Hampshire have financial aid programs for patients, offering discounts for compassionate care.

“We all want to be able to get our patients prices that, you know, they can afford,” Leininger said.

Simon, who has also worked as the New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, added that pricing has long been a concern for the industry.

“Relative to other states. I think we still have a ways to go on that front,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can, but we’ve got bills to pay and have to maintain viability as a business.”

Leininger and others at Temescal are also wary of enticements across state lines. Billboards have appeared near the borders urging New Hampshire residents to travel to Maine and Massachusetts to buy the cannabis. “Patients definitely are going out of state,” she said. Keeping the loyalty of in-state customers is a continual challenge.

And stakeholders are eyeing a series of bills heading to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk this year that could affect the industry’s ability to expand.

Some would broaden who can access therapeutic cannabis. House Bill 605 would allow those with opioid use disorder to qualify for cannabis, and allow people from out of state to buy from the dispensaries.

Another, Senate Bill 162, would in part permit in-state patients to buy from any dispensary they want; current law requires that a patient designate a specific center and stick to it. The proposed change, which received a 24-0 vote in the Senate, would make a difference for organizations like Temescal, whose centers range from Lebanon to Dover.

Sununu, who has taken a strong stand against legalizing marijuana for recreational use, has given mixed support for the expansion of therapeutic cannabis in recent years.

The governor approved a major extension of the program in 2017 by allowing chronic pain patients to qualify — one year after the program had taken off. That effort had been touted by cannabis advocates as a way to steer pain patients away from opioids.

And Sununu signed a bill in May, House Bill 89, that made autism spectrum disorder a qualifying condition for therapeutic cannabis, and also made moderate to severe insomnia a qualifying symptom when paired with an underlying condition.

But Sununu has also vetoed other initiatives supported by the industry, such as a proposal to allow medical marijuana patients to grow the plants at home.

And in 2019, he killed an effort to allow alternative treatment centers to register with the state as for-profit businesses, arguing that the move would allow for over-commercialization of therapeutic cannabis.

“This would incentivize out-of-state special interests to acquire equity in New Hampshire ATCs,” Sununu said during his veto message then. “Although I remain supportive of medical marijuana, this bill would represent too great of a step towards the dangerous path of industrial commercialization of the marijuana industry in New Hampshire.”

Leininger sees it in a different light: as a financial lifeline and path to growth.

“As a business with such capital expenses, it makes it really challenging because we can only raise debt, and so we have this business that costs quite a bit to run, and we don’t get the same tax breaks as a regular nonprofit because of the federal status of cannabis,” she said.

This year, that bill has returned with a higher likelihood of passage. Senate Bill 38 passed the Senate, 18-6, and the House by voice vote in the spring, giving it a potential veto-proof majority.

Even as New Hampshire is increasingly isolated on the question of marijuana legalization — the state is the last holdout in New England — Simon has remained optimistic about the status of therapeutic cannabis.

“It’s been very challenging for all three of the ATCs in New Hampshire, but we see a lot of good signs that things are moving in a good direction,” he said.