Reorganized UNH Cooperative Extension tries to cope with cuts

Due to state budget cuts, the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension has nearly two dozen fewer employees than it had six months ago and is in the process of reorganizing so it can continue offering its programs statewide.

And while its core programming will generally stay intact, some programs will be cut, others condensed and services greatly reduced to at least one New Hampshire county, which severed its ties with the extension last year because of its own budgetary constrictions.

In the last legislative session, the UNH Cooperative Extension's budget was cut by 23 percent, or $1.7 million, after the Legislature sliced the state university system's budget by $32.5 million annually over the next two years.

As a result, 23 extension staff members were either laid off, retired or resigned."(They) cut 12 staff positions," said Dr. Malcolm Smith, the extension's family life and family policy specialist, a professor in UNH's Family Studies program and a frequent NHBR columnist. "This change is very hard on our staff, very hard coming right before the holidays knowing there are many changes ahead.

"He said extension staff has been told that there are probably more layoffs looming. In a March 2011 publication, the extension said it had 152 professional and support staff.

This staff reduction has created "serious gaps in our ability to provide priority programming throughout the state," said John Pike, dean and director of the extension, who issued a report on Tuesday laying out the steps the extension will take to reorganize itself following the personnel loss.

Up until recently, there was an extension office in each of New Hampshire's 10 counties; in each case, the county pays for the building and support staff, while the university provides the field experts.But faced with its own budget constraints, Strafford County cut its ties with the extension last year.

"We continue to serve (Strafford) in a limited way, particular 4-H — we don't want to see those kids not have a program to attend," said Smith. "So that was the biggest lost, but through attrition we've lost people in all areas.

"To address the budget shortfall and employee reduction, Pike assembled a team to study how the extension can continue to serve the people of New Hampshire, particularly in rural areas, despite a tightened budget.

They designed an approach that will eliminate some programs while grouping others.

Under the reorganization, programming will continue in four categories: food and agriculture; natural resources; youth and family; and community and economic development.

Programs that will be eliminated are ones that just aren't all that necessary anymore, such as those that focus on food preparation, money management — or, in other words, subjects on which there's lot of data available elsewhere, said Smith.

One of the major changes to the extension is that it will designate field specialists who serve entire regions, whereas previously each county had its own general researchers.

Counties will also be given more freedom with their budgets, and will basically be able to choose which extension services they want from what amounts to a menu of services. They will also have the option to transition their support staff into UNH employees.

But, Pike warned, if counties don't fund an office on their own or with other counties, programs will become very limited for its residents.

"We cannot continue to operate the way we did," said Pike. "Providing one educator in each of four traditional areas for each county is no longer possible."

To help support itself in the future, the extension will also begin to look more actively to outside funding, whether that means winning grants and government contracts, charging people fees to attend programs or bringing private sponsors on board to support various programs.

While there will be benefits, the consolidation of programs will have some negative impacts. For example, said Smith, the extension's family program — which under the reorganization will be blended with the youth program — probably won't have the resources to continue offering its popular parenting classes directly to parents.

"The bottom line is, in some ways, we may be stronger, but in some ways I think people in New Hampshire will notice a loss," said Smith. — KATHLEEN CALLAHAN/NEW HAMPSHIRE BUSINESS REVIEW


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