The Department of Corrections has rehired five teachers who were laid off from Maine’s youth prison during the impasse over the state budget.
In June, the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland laid off nearly half its teaching staff because corrections officials were uncertain whether the two-year state budget would fund their positions. Gov. Paul LePage’s budget proposal had suggested eliminating some teaching jobs at Long Creek, while the bipartisan legislative committee that oversees criminal justice unanimously recommended keeping them.
The layoffs — which included every certified math teacher at Long Creek — threw into question whether the facility’s Arthur R. Gould School would be able to maintain state approval and raised concerns among advocates for the wellbeing and education of the young people held there.
“We didn’t lose our school approval. We didn’t lose our special education certification,” said Colin O’Neill, an associate commissioner and Long Creek’s interim superintendent. “But … we were at risk of that with those vacancies and with those teachers being laid off.”
On Monday, four of the teachers returned to work at the school, which operates year round, and the fifth is expected back next week, according to O’Neill. The Department of Corrections is waiting to hear about whether the school’s vice principal, who was also laid off, will return, he said.
This was heralded as “great news” by Sen. Kimberley Rosen, R-Bucksport, who is the chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety
During the roughly one month since the layoffs, math was taught at Long Creek using a computer program. The school was also temporarily without a certified physical education and art teacher. The department was required to lay off the least senior teachers because of their union’s collective bargaining agreement, O’Neill said.
Joseph Jackson, coordinator of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, also greeted the news of the teachers’ return to work as a positive step and urged Long Creek officials to move swiftly to hire people into three newly funded positions focused on mental health issues at the prison.
As of last July, nearly 85 percent of the youth committed to Long Creek had three or more diagnosed mental health conditions, according to a DOC study. And over the past year the facility has seen a rash of self-harm among inmates, including its first suicide in decades.
“In light of the suicide attempts and [a mentally ill teenager’s] suicide, getting more mental health practitioners inside of Long Creek is essential,” said Jackson.
Funding the teaching and mental health care positions at Long Creek is among the many issues on which the Legislature broke with LePage in the lead-up to the recent government shutdown, which was caused by their failure to enact a budget by the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
In his proposed budget, the Republican governor suggested cuts to the teaching staff and other positions at Long Creek, which would have saved about $1 million from the facility’s annual budget of roughly $17 million.
As support for drawing down the prison’s teaching staff, the Department of Corrections sent members of the criminal justice committee a third-party report that found Long Creek’s teacher-to-student ratio exceeded the national average for a school in a correctional facility.
The report was written by Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings, a nonprofit that reportedly has been hired to run schools at juvenile corrections centers elsewhere in the country, and raised concerns among lawmakers and education staff that a push to privatize the school would follow the cuts. But O’Neill said that there is no plan to privatize the school at Long Creek.
LePage’s office did not respond to requests for comment.