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$38 Million YDC Verdict Could Cost Taxpayers Far More

Taxpayers could be on the hook for more than the $38 million verdict to David Meehan in the Sununu Youth Detention Center abuse lawsuit after lawyers with the Department of Health and Human Services tried to force a cap on the award.

The historic jury decision is being disputed by the state, which claims New Hampshire law imposes a cap on monetary damages and limits the amount Meehan can receive to $475,000. But as both sides hash out the dispute, looming is the real possibility that taxpayers will have to pay more — much more — regardless who wins the current dispute.

New Hampshire is a self-insured state, meaning there is no liability coverage policy for Meehan, or the 1,300 other adult survivors who claim they were horrifically abused as children while in state custody. Meehan was the first of the YDC claimants to get to court.

On Wednesday, Rockingham Superior Court Judge Andrew Schulman rejected the state’s argument that New Hampshire only needed to pay $475,000 to Meehan for a “single incident” of abuse after a jury ruled in his favor last month. 

“In the court’s view, this would be an obvious miscarriage of justice because the finding of a ‘single incident’ was conclusively against the weight of the evidence,” Schulman wrote.

Meehan’s attorneys claim there were more than 300 incidents of rapes, beatings, emotional abuse, and illegal solitary confinement proven at the trial.

After listening to weeks of testimony about the hundreds rapes and other abuses Meehan suffered as a child in the 1990s, jurors returned a verdict finding the state liable for facilitating Meehan’s abuse and working to cover it up for decades. However, the verdict form was marked to indicate there was one incident where the state engaged in “wanton, malicious, and oppressive conduct” by abusing its power in permitting the sexual assaults.

Lawyers for DHHS argue that form means the $475,000 cap needs to be applied, overriding the $38 million verdict. However, after reading New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella’s statement about the cap, the jury foreman reached out to Meehan’s lawyers to express dismay, saying he felt “duped” by the state.

“I was literally sickened and brought to tears in fear of the mistake we made. I still am,” the foreman wrote in an unsolicited email. “Please know, and PLEASE let Mr. Meehan know that, had we had knowledge that that was the way it was going to work, we would NOT have written it that way.”

Schulman blamed his jury instructions, which did not specify jurors needed to count up all the individual instances of abuse, for the confusion. Schulman wrote he was trying to avoid influencing the jury by explaining the cap.

Schulman wrote that the jury’s $38 million award cannot be explained if it truly found only one instance of abuse had been proved. 

“An overly clever logician might say that the jury could have found that plaintiff proved one instance of abuse, disbelieved his testimony regarding all of the other instances, and awarded $38,000,000 for the single instance,” Schulman wrote. “But this would be sophistry rather than true logic. No reasonable jury would award $38 million for a single instance of abuse. No reasonable jury would have believed plaintiff’s testimony as it related to a single hour and disbelieved his testimony as related to all of the other hours, days, weeks, and months.”

David Vicinanzo, one of Meehan’s lawyers, pushed for an emergency hearing in court to let the jurors clarify their verdict. Short of that, he argued the $475,000 cap ought to be applied to each incident proved at trial, which he pegs at at least 300 rapes alone. 

Schulman’s order Tuesday recommends a process by which he will determine the number of incidents to which the cap could be applied. In more bad news for the state, Schulman writes that in reviewing the trial record he found there were between 103 and 155 incidents proved at trial. That would put the total award at between $47 million and $73 million. 

The state legislature passed a bill creating a $100 million settlement fund for all of the victims. But Vicinanzo and Russ Rilee, the other lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said that fund unjustly limited the damages the survivors could seek. 

The fund is administered by former state Supreme Court Chief Justice John Broderick, who told NHPR last month that 418 survivors entered into settlement agreements, and most took less than $500,000. A few have received more, between $1 million and $5 million. But with at least 1,200 more civil trials pending, the $100 million settlement fund, which has already spent $66 million, will run dry.

The state has been criticized by survivors for the conflict of interest demonstrated by the fact it is defending itself in the civil trials while it is also supposed to prosecuting the alleged abusers. Out of the hundreds of alleged abusers named in the lawsuits, the state has managed to indict just 11 men, with the last of the indictments coming in 2021.

Strafford County Ignored Low Nursing Home Bid

A million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money, the saying goes.

Unless it’s taxpayer money. 

Strafford County’s quest for a new nursing home stalled out last year when members of the county legislative delegation balked at the astronomical $170 million proposal pushed by county commissioners. Representatives like Cliff Newton (R-Rochester) blocked the commissioner’s request to take out a massive bond for a 215-bed nursing home proposal complete with a golf course and waterfall.

But now, Newton is flabbergasted to learn commissioners ignored a $50 million bid when they originally opted for a grander vision.

“It boggles my mind they did that,” Newton told NHJournal.

When the commissioners voted unanimously to go with the extravagant bid submitted by architectural firm Warrentstreet in May 2022, it passed over the $49 million bid from EGA Architects. The lower bid was never shared with the delegation, Newton said.

“They did it without notifying the delegation of anything,” Newton said.

Commission Chair George Maglaras denied ever seeing the lower bid, telling The Rochester Voice on Tuesday, “That proposal never came before us.”

However, the EGA bid was presented to the commission at the May 26, 2022 meeting, according to meeting minutes on file. Maglaras did not respond to a request for comment from NHJournal.

The county’s all-Democrat commission has been working for years to put together a winning proposal for a new nursing home. Twice the delegation stopped its plans over cost concerns. Newton fully supports a new nursing home for county residents, but said the expensive plans favored by the commission don’t make sense for taxpayers.

Frustrated by a lack of a new, lower-cost proposal, Newton and others took a trip to Carroll County to tour the nursing home there. Impressed by that facility, put together by EGA, they spoke to company representatives about doing the same for Strafford County. That’s when Newton and other delegation members found out EGA, in fact, submitted the $50 million bid.

“I knew that we were not being told the whole story on the county nursing home project,” Newton said.

Rep. Joe Pitre (R-Farmington) said commissioners wasted time and taxpayer money pursuing the high-cost project. So far, the county has spent close to $2 million developing the upscale Warrentstreet proposal.

“When I spoke with [EGA] they said yes, they could build one, but would have to adjust for inflation to a cost of approximately $64 million, or $15 million more because of the delay,” Pitre said.

Newton and Pitre started digging and found the EGA bid submitted in April 2022, as well as the record on the May 2022 vote.

“Strafford County commissioners and administration never informed the delegation of the EGA’s lower cost plan. Instead, they chose a much more expensive and institutionalized building plan without exploring different options that would have been acceptable to the entire delegation,” Newton said. “As a result of their actions, we have not approved a bond for an extravagant nursing home. We have gone nowhere in two years. We have spent $2 million of taxpayer money with nothing to show for it, and that is just plain wrong.”

Newton believes the commissioners want to build a facility that can compete with the many private nursing homes already in Strafford County. The county home is a service for county residents, and it is supposed to be there for the people, he said.

“Instead, they’re chasing revenue by trying to compete with private nursing homes,” Newton said.

ConVal School District Demands More Cash As Supt. Takes Home $170K

As the legal battle over school funding plays out in the ConVal lawsuit trial in the Rockingham Superior Court this week, new data show the massive increase in school spending is tied to the nearly 60 percent increase in the number of district administrators.

School superintendents are among the highest-paid public employees in the state, with salaries more than double that of the average teacher. That is certainly the case in the Contoocook Valley Regional School District, which is currently in court demanding more state funding.

According to data compiled by the New Hampshire Department of Education, Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders’s salary is more than $171,000 a year. That makes her one of the highest-paid superintendents in the state.

A study released this week by the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy showed taxpayer spending on New Hampshire school districts rose by $1.5 billion over the last 30 years even as the number of students fell by 14 percent. Even adjusting for inflation, taxpayers poured in an additional $937 million to educate fewer kids.

“This massive spending increase–40 percent when adjusted for inflation–occurred as public school enrollment was cratering. From 2001-2019, New Hampshire district public school enrollments fell by more than 29,946 students or 14 percent,” the report stated.

It was particularly true for administrative costs. According to the report, that 14 percent drop in enrollment was accompanied by a 15 percent increase in district administrative staffing.

“Adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending increased 83 percent for support services, 82 percent for general administration, [and] 74 percent for school administration.”

The trend appears to be at work in ConVal schools. For example, in 2001, the Contoocook Valley Regional School District had 3,227 enrolled students. By 2019, it had fallen to 2,176, or 32.5 percent.

At the same time, school spending — mostly paid for by property taxpayers — rose from $37.3 million a year to more than $47 million, an increase of 26 percent.

The numbers don’t lie, said Ben Scafidi, the author of the report and a professor of Economics at Kennesaw State University and director of the school’s Education Economics Center. “Taxpayers are spending more money on fewer students,” he said.

The problem isn’t teacher pay, which has risen modestly. Instead, one of the biggest cost drivers in public schools has been the number of district-level administrators and staff, up 57 percent, Scafidi said. They are employees who do not teach and who generally do not interact with students.

“Most of the spending increase went outside the classroom,” Scafidi told WFEA radio’s Drew Cline Wednesday. Cline is also the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center.

While the number of students dropped 14 percent, the number of school principals overseeing their education dropped by just two percent.

“It’s very out of whack with the decrease in students,” Scafidi said.

In the same period, schools were beefing up spending and losing students, and the rest of New Hampshire’s government was growing at a much smaller pace, Scafidi said. He said that public colleges and universities saw an 8 percent increase in the number of students and responded with a more than 7 percent increase in staff. All other state agencies grew by about 1.2 percent, with more than 300 employees, even though the state population went up 8 percent.

New Hampshire is now spending thousands more per pupil than other states; he said, around $3,900 more. The average state spending per pupil is close to $19,000. This hasn’t stopped districts like ConVal from fighting the state for more per-pupil spending.

The state sends nearly $4,000 per pupil to each school district as part of the adequate education grants. ConVal’s lawsuit claims the real cost of the constitutionally mandated adequate education is much higher, and it wants the state to send $10,000 per pupil.

In addition to Rizzo Sanders’ $171,000 a year — which puts her in the top bracket of school superintendents — the assistant ConVal superintendent earns more than $141,000. That’s more than many superintendents in nearby districts, where the pay ranges from about $100,000 to $150,000.

Not that ConVal is at the top of the heap for administrative salaries.

Hanover’s superintendent brings in $178,000, and Nashu pays its superintendent $172,500. Oyster River’s superintendent is the top earner, taking home more than $192,000.

Part of the blame for the increase in the number of outside-the-classroom administrators falls on state and federal governments issuing rules and mandates for local schools.

“Public schools get funding from the federal government, the state government, and local property taxes,” Sacfidi said. “You have many layers of government telling schools what to do, and each layer of government has its preferences, and they impose them on public schools.”

According to Sacfidi, the result is more taxpayer money going to schools that teach fewer students, and more of that money goes to employees who do not step inside the classrooms as part of their jobs.