Local News

Special-needs school could become casualty of state budget cuts

Posted June 2, 2009

— By age 7, Brittany Newman had been diagnosed with a personality disorder, mood disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The now-17-year-old high school junior admits the journey was rough.

"I remember how I was. (I) hated life, wanted to die (and) wanted my parents to die," she said.

As Newman grew older, her mother said, she became angry, aggressive and uncontrollable to the point that everyone else in the household lived in constant fear.

"She threatened to kill me with knives," Tracy Potvin said. "I mean, she'd come at me with a knife. I was terrified."

One of the signs inside the Wright School. N.C. budget woes could force school to close

Suspended from school several times and in and out of hospitals, nothing seemed to help. As a last resort, Potvin enrolled her then-12-year-old daughter into the Wright School.

The school, located in Durham, serves 6- to 12-year-olds with serious emotional and behavioral disorders and helps families learn to deal with their children's special needs.

"We serve kids and families," said the school's director, Debbie Simmers.

The six-month program, in which students stay at the school Monday through Friday and go home on the weekends, combines typical classroom work with extensive mental health services. It focuses on strategies and skills for success at home, school and in the community.

A recent Duke University study found that children enrolled in the program show "enormous gains" in the treatment and maintain the growth after discharge.

"It is seamless," Simmers said. "You cannot tell what part of the day is treatment. It's all treatment. It's all learning to live a healthy life."

But with the worst state budget crisis since the Great Depression, the state Senate has agreed with Gov. Beverly Perdue's budget recommendation to close the Wright School and its high school counterpart, the Whitaker School in Butner.

The annual savings would be about $5.8 million.

"The cut of the Wright and Whitaker schools is evidence (that) we're beyond having to cut waste," Sen. Doug Berger, D- Franklin, said. "We're cutting legitimate functions of the state."

Both schools have a waiting list. Combined, they serve 80 to 90 children a year.

Berger, who co-chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee, has said the cost per pupil is hard to justify.

The state spends about $7,000 annually per pupil in the public school system, Berger said – less than the cost per pupil at Wright and Whitager. Berger said lawmakers agreed that in a tight budget, spending needs to occur where it would result in the greatest good.

"For this amount of money, we can cover 15,000 children over the next year in child health insurance," Berger said. "These are the hard choices the General Assembly is having to make because of the economic crisis we're facing."

The state House of Representatives is still working on its proposed budget, attempting to fill a $4.5 billion shortfall. A House appropriations committee said Monday that it is recommending keeping funding for the schools.

"It's a penny wise and a pound foolish," said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, of cutting funding for the program. She is one senator opposed to the idea.

Kinnaird said she believes closing Wright and Whitaker will cost the state and the families more than it will save.

"There are very few places that can handle the severe problems. Unless we treat these children, we're going to be treating them in prison. Or worse – we're going to have a tragedy."

For Newman and her family, the result was nothing less than a miracle.

"I'm living the life like a normal teenager," Newman said. "Before, I was like, demons are eating at me."

"It was amazing what they did to save her live – and ours," Potvin said.


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  • Plum Tuckered Jun 5, 2009

    Thanks for your input, MakoII !!!

  • superman Jun 5, 2009

    When adults elect to have children (remember birth control) they have some (?) responsiblity to provide for them! Why do people believe that the public is responsible in the event that everything is not "normal"? Have children-- if they ain't right put them in a school and let the state take care of them. In the meantime have some more! Do children like they do the senior citizens. If you have property you have to pay for nursing care. Parents that put their children in homes should have to sell their house and car to pay for their care. Americans are a bunch of people who expect everyone to pay for their mistakes-- I want it free and I want it now. The best place to find a helping hand --is at the end of your own elbow. Now mine-- thank you.

  • Garnerwolf1 Jun 5, 2009

    Rush is an idiot by most people's definition. Gingrich might not be far behind, but I'd love to see the quote where he said his stated purpose was gutting social, health and education programs. Many conservatives may well want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but what many libs miss is the abuse that goes on in many of these programs, as well as the entitlement mentality that some of these programs generate, and how they can act as an enabler for those who have no sense of wanting to be responsible for themself, let along better themselves. The Answer is somewhere in the middle. As Buffett states in one of his more recent songs - "Moderation seems to be the key".

  • courtneyjmitchell Jun 5, 2009

    While some of you argue about who is at fault, remember that these are issues that strike children no matter their political affiliation, race, background, or financial standing. It's not their fault - they haven't done anything to watch their childhoods turn inside with no one there to make it better. Wright School helps these children learn to lead more normal lives so they can return to their schools and be healthy, functioning children. It doesn't matter who you think is at fault. What can we do to keep this school open?

  • MakoII Jun 5, 2009


    Can't argue that dixiecrats are currently doing that, no. You're 100% right.

    But it has never been the stated directive of any part of the democratic party to run the government into the ground for the explicit purpose of gutting social, health and education programs.

    It HAS been stated so by the Republican party. By Gingrich. But Rush. Repeated by ditto-heads.

    So is it wrong to blame those who had this as their stated purpose at the get-go?

    Now are ALL Conservatives this way? Heck no. More than half of them are quite sensible. But then again, this sensible half is being driven out of the Republican party by wacko neo-conservatives who have no toleration for a wide umbrella in conservative thinking, or including moderates of ANY kind.

  • MakoII Jun 5, 2009


    Take it easy Professor. It's SATIRE. I of course have the opposite point of view. I'm just summing up the undercurrent of forum conservative thinking here by being blatant about it.

    Personally, I think Education is tantamount to our countries Self-Defense and should have Military size budgets.

    We should be closing down busing and road maintenance before we ever touch special needs or class instruction.

    I'm sorry my satire was so key it fooled you. But then again, it proves it's own point, doesn't it?

  • Garnerwolf1 Jun 5, 2009

    You're not, but let's assume that you're correct about the Federal Repubs creating the "Depression". If you believe this, then you also must admit that it's the State Dems that are gutting social services, education, etc. The Federales have nothing to do with closing a special-needs school in NC.

  • Professor Jun 5, 2009


  • Professor Jun 5, 2009

    Special programs should never be eliminated. All children should have rights the same as normal kids. Parents continue to fight for your child rights. Pay no attention to the ignorant comments on board.

  • Professor Jun 5, 2009

    Special Needs programs should be eliminated entirely. Only well behaved, high grade, religious white people should go to school. On Government Vouchers no less. Everyone else should be R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-L-E despite their lack of instruction, which I think should be zero because learning is for Liberal Ivory Tower Elites.

    This comment should never have been brought to the public eye, WRAL. This was a racist comment and some of us on board really do not appreciate it. Obviously, the person who wrote it has a low self-esteem. Blacks are very smart. Who is your president today?