PORTLAND, Maine — A loss of state research and training contracts will trigger at least 11 layoffs at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service, school officials confirmed this week.
Another nine Muskie School employees will see their roles reduced and potentially eliminated entirely as state projects being performed by the school are completed.
“Extraordinarily good people are losing their jobs,” said Mark Lapping, Muskie School executive director. “The upshot is a number of people will lose their positions and a number of these people will leave Maine. These are precisely the sort of jobs we think should be retained in Maine, what we call ‘brain jobs.’”
Lapping said the Muskie School has performed research and training work for the state under a two-decade-old cooperative agreement between the University of Maine System and state government.
However, with the Department of Health and Human Resources looking for budget cuts — taking some work in-house and paring other projects outright — the school and its Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy stands to lose staff.
“These positions are affected because of state budget cuts and fewer contracts, known as cooperative agreements, with the state,” said USM spokesman Bob Caswell in a statement. “Nevertheless, they are regrettable because these are people who for many years have provided important services to state government such as training for child welfare staff. The Muskie School’s Cutler Institute is committed to finding ways to continue its work with state government on the improvement of services for Maine people.”
Lawmakers during the recent legislative session closed a DHHS budget gap of more than $200 million with a series of program cuts and restructuring.
“The recently passed budget includes many structural changes to address a budget shortfall and to put Maine on a pathway toward financial sustainability,” DHHS spokesman John Martins told the BDN in a statement.
Martins provided the Bangor Daily News with a list of 29 contracts worth at least $16.9 million combined the department has with USM’s Muskie School. Projects range in cost from less than $5,000 to more than $3 million.
Dollar values for another 12 contracts with the school were not available by press time.
Projects included training for state child welfare workers, vector-borne disease epidemiology research, and public health management analysis.
Of the 41 contracts between DHHS and the Muskie School, 10 are projects that will be eliminated, two will be brought in-house at the department, and seven are under review.
Additionally, Lapping said, Gov. Paul LePage’s November executive order calling for all state contracts to be put out to competitive bid — instead of automatically renewed under the cooperative agreement — places other Muskie School projects in uncertain territory.
Of the school’s 41 DHHS projects, the department is seeking requests for proposals for another 13 of them under the competitive bidding process.
Lapping said he hopes the Muskie School’s history working on the projects, and the fact that as state university employees the school’s payroll can be used to represent state matching funds and qualify for federal grants, will help give the institution the upper hand in the bidding process.
“We welcome the notion of open bidding,” he said. “We believe we can compete in terms of quality and cost with anybody, and what we bring to the table is this long history of doing extraordinary work with extraordinary people for the extraordinary people of Maine.”
But, he said, in the cases of the projects being eliminated or brought in-house by DHHS, the resultant job losses at the Muskie School will damage the institution and the larger university as it competes for top students nationwide.
“It impacts us academically,” Lapping said. “By having those experts in the Cutler Institute doing this work, it provides wonderful learning opportunities for our students, because they can work with people who are at the top of their field, and that I can’t replace at this school.”