All businesses and organizations use performance measures to ensure accountability. Success and survival depend on key metrics like increased revenue, repeat customers and product quality. What if your business lost 20% of its customers, dropped substantially in rankings amongst competitors and increased operating costs by 30% –essentially becoming an industry outlier?
This is precisely what’s happening in SAU16. Data doesn’t lie, and the cause is leadership failure.
Our assessment concludes Superintendent Ryan and our School Board have neglected their fiduciary responsibilities and their core commitment to academics. Whether Ryan and the School Board want to admit it, they are at the helm and are responsible for the abysmal numbers and the decline of our schools--just as leadership in any organization owns their performance. In real-life private industry poor performance leads to firings, reorganization, or bankruptcy. In education the stakes are equally as high if not higher--our children’s education and wellbeing is at stake. Great leaders and their teams accept criticisms, reflect and course correct. Ryan and his team have decided that failed practices--more of the same--will get us different results, and have failed at serving our students, teachers and our community.
Steep Decline in Academic Rankings
In 2018, newly hired Ryan announced during his Superintendent’s report that Exeter High School (EHS) was ranked one of the top 100 public high schools in the US. This achievement reflected the commitment to excellence in SAU16. Since then, the rankings of every school in SAU16 have dropped substantially–some by 50%. When asked to explain the academic decline, Ryan stated that rankings are not always the best measure but admitted there’s work to be done. He also claimed that many students opted out of standardized testing during Covid; however the reported rankings were based on data prior to Covid.
Even more disturbing, in 2021 the NH Department of Education corrected SAU16 for attempting to administer standardized tests to our students at a grade level below their current grade. The administration reversed course and subsequently students were given the correct test. Equally baffling, in January of 2022, the “Top Schools in the US” badge earned by the district in 2018 appeared on the SAU16 and EHS websites. For an administration who claims that rankings should not matter, why add this honor (that has not been repeated since) to the website five years later?
At Cooperative Middle School (CMS), upwards of six classes occur concurrently in the school auditorium because no substitute teachers are available. Instead of receiving teacher-led instruction, students are asked to work independently on assignments via their Chromebooks. When asked to increase the compensation for substitute teachers at BAC meetings, and the most recent Joint Board meeting, Ryan warned of the budget impact. It is important to note that an individual can earn more per hour at Dunkin Donuts and Target than providing classroom assistance at our schools. Our students are struggling with learning loss from the last two years, but the administration can’t or won’t commit the resources that would provide the greatest impact - tutoring and quality substitute teachers.
Decline in Enrollment
Each fall, student enrollment is reported to the state so that adequacy funds can be calculated. SAU16 reported a decline in enrollment of 9%--more than 400 students. At CMS, over 200 students (20%) have sought alternative education. Ryan uses statewide census data, the pandemic and relocation of families to explain this trend. However, isolating the census for the six towns in our SAU reveals that the population has increased by 9%, while the under age 18 population stayed level. Local private schools and VLACS have experienced a surge in enrollment with waiting lists. Parents in our community are voting with their feet and seeking alternatives to SAU 16.
At the October 2021 Joint Board meeting, an increase to the SAU16 administration budget was approved ($2.8M). Since Ryan became Superintendent, this budget has increased 30%. School board member Ted Lloyd made a motion to not include the 3% salary increase for 2022-23 year, and was soundly admonished. Most vocal in defense of Ryan’s proposed budget were members: Helen Joyce (Stratham), Kimberly Meyer (Exeter) and Patrick O’Day (Exeter).
Meanwhile our teachers are working without a contract for the second year. In efforts to level spending, Ryan proposed cutting six teachers at CMS and two at EHS. Ryan claimed the Budget Advisory Committee (BAC) demanded budget cuts, and Joyce stated they were responding to public pressure. However, BAC merely provides feedback for the budget as presented. BAC explicitly requested budget cuts in areas that did not impact teachers. After public outcry, three teaching positions were reinstated into the budget by the board but were not offset by cuts in any other area, except for reducing funding to Great Bay Charter School (GBCS). This yielded a savings of only 0.002% of the overall budget. This same board allocated $800k last spring to remove student lockers to create additional office space.
The BAC--who serve as an independent auditor, a check-and-balance--voted down the 2022 budget 7 – 1. It’s the first time this has ever occurred and a response to reckless spending and initiatives that are not in alignment with the mission of our schools. Furthermore, it’s the first time a Superintendent and School Board have completely disregarded the BAC’s recommendations. As taxpayers, you’d never sink your hard-earned money into anything with a losing track record. Yet the school board has only served to rubber stamp Dr. Ryan’s recommendations and expect us to go along with the spending scheme.
It’s time for the community to do what the school board will not—hold the administration accountable. We want a plan to restore academic excellence. We want school board members who will think critically and act on behalf of the best interests of our students and teachers. We can achieve that by voting for new, fresh voices for our local school board on March 8.
Data referenced in this post comes from
School Board meeting minutes can be found:
Meeting videos can be found: