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What’s New

Delaware Population Consortium approves 2022 projections, but questions about accuracy remain

From: Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Population Consortium approved the state’s 2022 population projections Thursday – projections that counties, municipalities and school districts are required to use for planning and budgeting purposes.

This year’s projections — both for 2022 and for the coming decades — pose several challenges for city governments and the state as a whole.

UD’s Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research projects a dramatic shift in the ratio of working-age adults to seniors in Delaware over the next three decades.

Center Director Ed Ratledge says the number of new births appears on track to remain flat for the foreseeable future, while the population over the age of 65 is vastly outpacing both births and in-migration of working-age people.

“The population from 0 to19, which is where your new labor force is going to come from, is going to grow by 4,000 from 2020 to 2050,” he said. “At the same time, the over-65 crowd grows by almost 90,000.”

Overall, UD researchers expect the state’s population to begin declining by 2050, with only slow growth in the intervening decades. In-migration is the key driver of Delaware’s population growth, but that migration is disproportionately concentrated in Sussex County and includes retirees.

But some at Thursday’s Consortium meeting were skeptical about the accuracy of local-level population estimates from the 2021 American Community Survey.

Newark Acting Director of Planning and Development Renee Bensley questioned data suggesting Newark’s population has slightly declined since 2020.

“If you look at the specific census tracks, the ones that had the most severe drops were the ones with concentrations of student housing – and where we’ve been building denser student housing,” she said. “Not only was that additional density not counted, but it suggested a decrease, which is not reflective of our reality on the ground.”

Bensley says Newark may conduct a supplemental census in 2023 to double-check the most recent population data, which she said may be necessary to ensure Newark receives its fair share of state resources.

“Our City Manager in particular is very concerned about the fact that since these are used to determine the distribution of street funding money, we could see a pretty severe percentage drop that isn’t reflective of an actual drop in our population,” she said.

Consortium members previously identified apparent population declines in Sussex County municipalities like Georgetown as potential survey errors.

Delaware sees second record month of overdose deaths in 2022

From: Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s overdose crisis reached a new peak in November with a record 43 deaths, surpassing a previous high set in May of this year.

376 people have died of drug overdoses in Delaware in 2022 — 18 percent higher than in the same period in 2021, which saw 515 people die by the end of the year. Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Director Joanna Champney says historical overdose data gives her agency reason to worry that deaths may continue to trend upwards in the coming months.

“The month of December, for the past three years, is always higher than the preceding month of November,” she said. “So seeing a spike in November has us concerned about what may be coming down the pike next month.”

Roughly half of last month’s deaths occurred in New Castle County, where needle exchange workers say unusually strong free samples – likely containing high concentrations of fentanyl – offered to drug users in November may have played a role in some deaths.

Champney says her agency received similar reports, and notes while it can be helpful to alert healthcare providers and law enforcement of drug supply changes, warning users poses an ethical challenge.

“One of the challenges is – and it’s the same challenge with fentanyl test strips – that some people are seeking those substances,” she said. “We have to balance that when we’re telling people there’s a new, particularly potent drug out there.”

Champney adds her agency will attempt to increase its distribution of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, including with more door-to-door visits in communities hardest-hit by the crisis. And with health conditions associated with drug use – including sores and infections – taking an increasing toll on users, Champney says her department is looking into deploying nurses or other medical professionals to offer more mobile treatment options.

Meanwhile, DSAMH is also preparing for the launch of an overdose response center next month to identify localized overdose hotspots for faster and more targeted outreach.

So far, the state’s response to the opioid crisis has centered largely on distributing basic harm reduction supplies and providing referrals to treatment options — namely Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), which relies on less potent opioids like methadone or opioid antagonists to treat dependency — through outreach teams or drop-in centers. The state is also investing in expanded residential treatment capacity.

It’s Open Enrollment Season for ‘School Choice’

From: Caesar Rodney Institute 

A January 2022 national survey conducted by National School Choice found that nearly 70% of parents support school choice (31% “strongly support and 38% “somewhat support”). These parents also said they have considered sending one of their children to a new or different school. Options abound nationwide including school choice vouchers, scholarships, tax credits and charter schools.

While “school choice” has become a hot topic across the country, many parents in Delaware are unaware that “school choice” is an option here.


The 2022 open enrollment School Choice dates are November 7, 2022, through January 11, 2023. During this time, Delaware parents can apply to have their child attend a new school – either within the same school district, another district, or a charter school. Parents can access the online application and instructions by visiting SchoolChoiceDE.org.

The board of every school district and every charter school has until November 30th to notify the Delaware Department of Education of its capacity to accept new students. Parents can find this information by visiting https://www.schoolchoicede.org/.

Each district and each charter is required, no later than October 31st, to hold at least one public information session about choice opportunities for the coming year. Unfortunately, these sessions are frequently not well advertised, and parents are often unaware of them.

Parents are responsible for transporting their children directly to their “choice” school or taking them to the nearest bus stop location. Transportation has been an obstacle that caused many parents not to take advantage of the school choice program. Low-income families could find this a hardship because they may not own a car or have a flexible work schedule.

Currently, to assist in transportation to school, the state of Delaware allows middle and high school students to obtain a free DART bus pass for transport to their school. However, with the DART bus system, all the routes end up in the city of Wilmington and do not take the students directly to their schools. Students often must take two buses before arriving at school, which is frequently not a practical option. 

 The free DART bus pass is available to all students in the state, not just those attending a district or charter school. The bus pass may also be used to transport a student to a Catholic or private school. In fact, some students who live in Dover take DART to attend a Catholic school in North Wilmington. This is a two-hour ride and requires a bus change in Wilmington, but the families and students have decided that the long commute is worth it.


  • Provide Transportation:  The Delaware School Choice program should include transportation costs for the student to attend their “choice” school or at least cover the transportation costs to be transported to the nearest bus stop, as was the law in the past. Doing this would make the program much more feasible and equitable for low-income families.

If the state doesn’t have a budget for transportation, another option would be to have one of the non-profits in the state whose goal is to improve the education system provide transportation to students participating in school choice.

  • User-friendly Webpage:  One of the most crucial aspects of a School Choice program is providing parents with information about how various schools perform on standardized tests. It is essential to provide an easy-to-use website where parents can find the test scores for the district and charter schools their child is considering.

U.S. News and World Report has a website that ranks the various high schools in Delaware, but it is not based solely on the statewide Smarter Balanced test. Instead, it includes information on how many students take or pass AP or IB tests and how many students graduate. The site also doesn’t include elementary and middle schools. https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/delaware

The Delaware Department of Education’s website currently provides access to the test results of the statewide Smarter Balanced assessment for each school; however, it is not user-friendly for parents to view (broken down by topic, grade, race, sex, and special needs). There is no place where a parent can easily see a school’s overall performance in math or reading. Without this information, they cannot decide which school is best for their child.

  • Improve Awareness for School Choice:  Finally, information on the procedures required to participate in school choice should be publicized on the websites of the school districts and the Delaware Department of Education, as well as through phone calls and emails to parents within a district. Public service announcements on local radio stations or information provided through newspaper and newsletter articles like this one should inform families of the school choice option and the timetable involved.
Author’s Notes:

Before applying for school choice, a student must be registered in their feeder school. To find your feeder school, go to https://arcgis.doe.k12.de.us/school_locator/ 

To find out the availability of public or charter schools near you, go to: https://www.schoolchoicede.org/ChoiceApplications.aspx

New survey examines workforce needs of Delaware business owners

From: Delaware Public Media

In an effort to bolster employment in the First State, the Delaware Workforce Development Board released the results from its recent survey of state employers.

The survey was commissioned by the Board to help various programs and initiatives aiming to increase the number of Delawareans possessing the job skills that employers need.

This week, our Joe Irizarry spoke with Joanna Staib – Executive Director of the Delaware Workforce Development Board – to learn more about the survey and its findings.

Delaware Public Media’s Joe Irizarry talks with Joanna Staib of the Delaware Workforce Development Board about the Board’s recent survey of state business owners.
The Delaware Workforce Development Board releases results from a recent survey of state employers to help improve Delaware’s workforce.

The Delaware Workforce Development Board wanted to focus on the needs of Delaware businesses in the post-COVID world where it seems there are more job openings than individuals.

The survey findings include that there are a lot of openings for those without a college degree, and those with a high school diploma or GED can enter the workforce more easily than in the past.

Delaware Workforce Development executive director Joanna Staib says another major takeaway is the number of businesses hiring those coming out of the criminal justice system.

“The amount of businesses that said that they do hire individuals that come out of the criminal justice system. So that was about 46% of the overall businesses that we surveyed said that they do hire individuals with a criminal background, and that number actually increased when we looked at the business size. So those businesses that had two to 10 employees that number went up to 55%,” said Staib.

Meanwhile, Staib says when businesses were asked what technical skills are lacking, they offered a surprising response.

“The top four out of five were like Microsoft Excel, Word, data analyst, and then just computer literacy overall,” said Staib. “I was thinking we’d get engineering or nursing, or whatever it was in their particular industry. But they came up with that digital literacy piece.”

She notes her group’s goal is transitioning individuals receiving services and training and placing them for a job.

Many Del. districts don’t evaluate superintendents annually

From: Delaware Live

Even though the job of superintendent of education is one of the most powerful in a school district, many Delaware districts don’t perform annual reviews of theirs.

“Some boards have a formal review, and some don’t,” said Donald Patton, board member of Christina School District. He was a teacher and principal for decades before being elected in May.

“How do you hire someone in your top position, the only person that you hire as a board member, and there’s no evaluation being done until the contract is up?” he asks.

Advocacy group First State Educate is learning that annual performance evaluations for school districts are not common.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars, learning outcomes where they are, and incredibly challenging teaching conditions means the stakes are very high for quality and sustainability, “says Laurisa Schutt, executive director. “Evaluations can be collaborative learning tools that focus us on our top strategic priorities. Without feedback, it’s hard to know where we are and how we are progressing. “

Two of the primary duties of school boards is selecting and supervising the district superintendent.

“School board members do not have to be experts in any one area, but they need to be able to ask the right questions and acquire information essential to making good choices,” says the National School Board Association website. “Finances, curriculum and testing, strategic planning, state and federal legal requirements, and evaluating the superintendent’s performance are some of the demands on modern school boards.”

Why evaluate the superintendent?

The average salary for superintendents in America is well into the six figures, with some making more than $200,000, according to a study from the School Superintendents Association.

“We’re paying all this money for the superintendent, and we give him raises that are not tied into anything, he just gets to raise,” Patton said. “Raises should be tied into success and progress and If it’s not, then why are we automatically rewarding them?”

Christina’s school board is now deciding the best instrument to use to evaluate its superintendent, Dan Shelton.

In late September, Dr. John Marrinuci, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, presented a new review process to the board. It had been created by a different district’s board member as part of her doctoral dissertation.

The proposed review would evaluate a superintendent’s ability to meet expectations in vision and goals; teaching and learning; professional responsibilities; superintendent’s goal; and people, systems, and operations.

Naveed Baqir, who serves on the Christina board with Patton, said the agendas of school board members change partly because the members themselves change over the years. That may be one reason many districts don’t have a formal annual review.

Some board members may use annual evaluations to express their frustrations that their own agendas are not thriving, Baqir said.

A board member also may think the superintendent is meeting his or her requirements but wants something more out of the district as a whole.

“That’s where that constant update is required,” he said. “That’s why most school districts, especially when there’s a major change in the board membership, end up in a situation where they want a new evaluation tool.”

Even if a district does have some performance review, its board members won’t always agree on what to include, as the case with Christina.

Some of its members have asked for more specific metrics such as student achievement and test scores, rather than simply checking a “meets expectations” or “does not meet expectations” box.

Baqir points out that if every district had a formal, end-of-the-year superintendent evaluation, they would need to make it unique and reflective of the needs and goals of a particular district.

“We always lobby for flexible evaluation tools for students, because every kid has a different set of capabilities,” Baqir said. “So if you measure every student with the same yardstick, every single aspect of their personality and development, that is not going to be fair to all children.”

The same goes for superintendents, he said.

In Colonial School District, the superintendent is formally reviewed whenever his/her contract is up. Contracts for superintendents are typically one to five years, Menzer said.

However, there is still feedback given to Superintendent Jeff Menzer every year.

“Every December and January, regardless of whether or not you’re due up for renewal as superintendent, the board, during executive session, reviews the superintendent’s performance,” Menzer said, “and they just share feedback and observations with myself in terms of what they expect and want to see moving forward with me as the leader.”

Still, Menzer said the relationship and communication between him and the district school board results in clear expectations.

“I’m the board’s loan employee. I work for them,” Menzer said. “They do not manage and control anything in the district except for me, and when there’s a problem or concern with my performance, they address it with me directly.”

While there isn’t a specific worksheet or checklist in Colonial, Menzer says establishing expectations each year and checking in with the board during Winter has the same outcomes that a formal review would.

“So while it’s not formal between me and the board, it’s expected that I’m performing at a level that they deem appropriate,” he said. “They let me know when there’s something I need to address, or handle based on my performance.”




Enrollment in state charters went up 5.1% during pandemic

From: Town Square Live 

Over the course of the pandemic, enrollment in Delaware charter schools increased 5.10%, while traditional public schools’ student body dropped 1.14%.

That’s according to a report published in November by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. It found that traditional public schools lost students in nearly every state.

The First State’s traditional public schools lost 1,423 students from 2019 to 2022, according to the report.

“We weren’t surprised to see that,” said Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Delaware charters generally are limited to a specific number of students when the state approves them.

During the past three years, Massett pointed out, several charter schools in the state, such as Odyssey and Newark charters, were granted expansions.

“Those charters had already had a waitlist, and that never went away, so they gained students once their expansion request was granted,” she said.

In fall 2020, another charter, Sussex Montessori School, opened its doors, which Massett said led to additional students leaving district schools for the charter alternative.

Not all charter schools are so lucky. Great Oaks Charter School, which has a lot of underprivileged students, saw its enrollment drop for many reasons and is now waiting for the state to say whether it will have to close.

Every year of the pandemic, Delaware’s charter school enrollment has gone up.

There are 18,223 students who go to charters, a little over 12% of the public-school population, according to Massett.

But Massett doesn’t believe charter schools are the main actors in attracting students away from traditional public schools.

“We also saw private school numbers go up, and homeschool numbers go up,” she said, citing enrollment spikes in Saint Mark’s High School and Wilmington Friends School.

Saint Mark’s recently announced an $8 million capital fundraising campaign as part of their efforts to expand.

It came just months after Newark Charter completed its 21-year expansion by unveiling its $20 million junior high school.

Right now, Odyssey Charter School has a $2 million capital campaign.

“Let me be clear, parents choosing to put their children in whatever school environment they choose to do is their right,” Massett said. “I also believe that we have to do better as a state in terms of getting information about schools, charter or not, to the community.”

Delaware’s Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Delaware’s Theft Epidemic: A Silent Economic Killer

 By: Kathleen Rutherford, Executive Director

Crime—burglary, robbery, vandalism, shoplifting, employee theft, and fraud—costs businesses billions of dollars each year. Crime can be particularly devastating to small businesses, who lose both customers and employees when crime and fear claim a neighborhood. When small businesses are victims of crime, they often react by changing their hours of operation, raising their prices to cover their losses, relocating outside the community, or simply closing. Fear of crime isolates businesses, much like fear isolates individuals—and this isolation increases vulnerability to crime.

The success of small businesses in Delaware is vital to a vibrant economy. Small businesses serve the needs of the overall workforce, and any detrimental impacts on small business will affect the economy and consumers. Taxes and regulations are the most obvious issues that impact our businesses, but crime is a significant factor that is often overlooked.

Property crime includes theft, shoplifting, and motor vehicle theft. Every year in Delaware since 2015, the rate of property crime per 100,000 residents was higher than the national average. In 2019 the property crime rate for Delaware was 2.35 per 100,000 residents, while the national rate was 2.1.  When businesses and/or families consider relocating, the “perception” of crime is as important as the actual crime rate. Theft, which includes shoplifting is the most reported property crime in Delaware, accounting for 78% of all major non-violent crimes in the state in 2020.

For businesses, burglary, theft, and shoplifting are of primary significance. Nationally, commercial burglaries in 2019 accounted for 32% of all burglaries reported. In 2019, Shoplifting accounted for 6,016 of the 18,085 thefts reported in Delaware. Shoplifting is a major contributor to the crime problem for businesses. While Delaware law enforcement is performing above the national averages of clearance rates, we remain at a higher rate of property crimes than the nation.

The most efficient way to reduce the crime rate is to prevent it from occurring. Burglary is a preventable crime in most cases. Alarm systems and surveillance equipment are optimal, but “good old fashioned” security is still important. Many burglars have told arresting police officers that they always chose a target that was easier to enter than others in the area. If doors are locked with adequate locking devices, windows secured properly, and a commercial space is visible from outside, burglars will often seek a different target.

Motor vehicle thefts have decreased over the years as built-in security systems have become more common in vehicles. Unfortunately, many people continue to leave their cars unlocked, leading to theft of the car itself, or items inside the car. It is a common practice for thieves to walk down residential streets or through parking lots and enter unlocked vehicles to steal items from inside.

Shoplifting has been a scourge for businesses for many years, and a crime that shows no signs of eradication. There are organized groups of criminals who participate in planned shoplifting operations. Many police agencies today assign officers specifically to units that focus on organized criminal shoplifting groups. The National Retail Federation reports that retail crime is costing businesses more than $700,000.00 for every $1 billion dollars in sales.

The AG’s office, law enforcement and industry organizations working together to educate business owners and employees on prevention techniques by:

  • Restoring the Pre-Pandemic dedicated retail crime unit within the state police, assigned to exclusively to work on organized retail crime (ORC).
  • Ensuring the legislated dedicated Attorney General retail prosecutor is named and assigned workload exclusive to organized retail crime. At monthly in-person meeting with industry businesses, must discuss actions, results, and recommendations to reduce retail crime.
  • Re-establish the monthly in-person meeting with businesses loss prevention, attorney general retail prosecutor, state police ORC task force, court calendar administrator, chambers, and industry groups.
  • Further develop and coordinate technology for mass communication between retailers and detectives for rapid response.
  • Communicate effective enforcement of civil recovery judgments by the courts and collection agencies to offset retailers cost of theft.
  • Holding an annual loss prevention conference including national and regional loss prevention professionals, members of the public, legislators, and other impacted groups with a publicly available annual report of crime issues facing Delaware businesses.

Industry experts attribute the continued rate of shoplifting offenses to reduced staffing at businesses. Michael Quaranta, President of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, has said “with fewer eyes on would be thieves, that’s only served to embolden those intent on shoplifting”. Quaranta suggested that secured product displays and technology are increasingly depended upon to prevent or detect shoplifting. Fear of violence against employees has also resulted in some businesses adopting policies prohibiting employees from confronting suspected thieves. With the realities facing Delaware, we must double-down on our efforts to communicate and coordinate with all stakeholders.


Delaware to receive $5.5 million in federal funding for internet access projects

From: Delaware Public Media

Delaware is set to receive $5.5 million in federal funding to expand internet access through last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

$500,000 are earmarked for “digital equity” projects – efforts to provide Delawareans with the skills and technology needed to take part in the digital economy. That could include distribution of laptops or tablets to those without a reliable way to access the internet.

The remaining $5 million can be used for an array of infrastructure and workforce development purposes. National Telecommunications and Information Administration Digital Equity Director Angela Thai Bennett says the grants are intentionally open-ended to offer greater flexibility to address unique local challenges.

“You have geographic differences, you have all types of differences within communities that you have to be sensitive to,” she said. “We’re making sure this isn’t a top-down approach, but one in which communities can help co-design what solutions look like for them.”

Bennett also noted that the grants are partially intended to improve the affordability of internet access, including in places where broadband infrastructure already exists.

She added that expanding internet access in low-income communities — public housing projects for instance — could open opportunities for higher-paying employment in remote work, while the workforce training projects funded with the grant could also focus on providing apprenticeships to residents of communities with limited internet access.

The grants do come with guardrails to direct infrastructure spending towards underserved communities. But other details, including the role of labor unions and major broadband providers in workforce development efforts, will be decided once Delaware’s Department of Technology and Information meets with stakeholders in the coming months.

DHSS requests additional 2024 funding to prepare for end of federal public health

From: Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Department of Health and Social Services outlined its preliminary 2024 budget request earlier this month, with preparations for the end of the federal public health emergency shaping many proposed budget items.

That transition away from the COVID-19-era emergency could have serious ramifications for Delawareans relying on public assistance programs; the emergency declaration brought with it expanded Medicaid access and requirements that states offer continuous coverage to anyone who enrolled in Medicaid before March 2020.

It also gave state agencies responsible for public health and social services greater flexibility in administering food benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs.

But Delaware DHSS Secretary Molly Magarik told Delaware Office of Management and Budget leadership in a 2024 budget hearing earlier this month that her agency is preparing for the end of the federal public health emergency in the coming year.

“When the federal public health emergency does end, in many ways the work is only beginning,” she said. “DHSS will have a significant undertaking to both educate the public about the changing benefit landscape and enact the requirements of what the feds are calling ‘the great unwinding.’”

That will mean disenrolling thousands of Delawareans from Medicaid – a daunting process that will require additional financial support from the state according to Magarik.

Magarik says that recent federal subsidies have made health insurance options plentiful and affordable enough that they may be able to help move some people from Medicaid to the insurance marketplace.

The 2024 budget door-opener presented this month includes nearly $70 million for one-time Medicaid costs stemming from the end of the federal public health emergency.


States differ on how best to spend $26B from settlement in opioid cases

From: Delaware Public Media 

With more than 200 Americans still dying of drug overdoses each day, states are beginning the high-stakes task of deciding how to spend billions of dollars in settlement funds from opioid manufacturers and distributors. Their decisions will have real-world implications for families and communities across the country that have borne the brunt of the opioid crisis.

Will that massive tranche of money be used to help the people who suffered the most and for programs shown to be effective in curbing the epidemic? Or will elected officials use the money for politically infused projects that will do little to offer restitution or help those harmed?

Jacqueline Lewis, of Columbus, Ohio, is wondering exactly that. She lost her son, Shaun, this fall after his 20-year struggle with addiction.

Shaun Lewis died in October 2022 at age 34 after wrestling with an addiction to opioids for 20 years. He was first prescribed the painkillers in middle school.
Shaun Lewis died in October 2022 at age 34 after wrestling with an addiction to opioids for 20 years. He was first prescribed the painkillers in middle school.

After emptying her retirement account and losing her house to pay for his rehab, court fees, and debts to dealers, Lewis is now raising her 7-year-old granddaughter while also caring for her 95-year-old mother with dementia, on nothing more than Social Security payments.

When she heard Ohio would receive $808 million in opioid settlement funds, Lewis thought there’d finally be relief for thousands of families like hers.

She was eager to speak with members of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, which was created to oversee the distribution of most of Ohio’s funds. As they determined priorities for funding, she wanted them to consider perspectives like hers — that of a mother and grandmother who’d faced addiction up close and saw the need for more treatment centers, addiction education in the workplace, and funding for grandparents raising grandkids as a result of the opioid epidemic.

But she couldn’t find anyone to listen. At an August foundation meeting she attended, board members excused themselves to go into a private session, she said. “They just left the room and left us sitting there.” When she attended another meeting virtually, audience members weren’t allowed to “voice anything or ask questions.”

A local group that advocates for people affected by the opioid epidemic has expressed similar concerns about the lack of opportunities for the public to speak with the foundation. That group is now suing the foundation for a lack of transparency, even though few decisions about funding priorities have been made yet.

Each state has its own approach to spending


The strife in Ohio highlights the tensions emerging nationwide as settlement funds start flowing. The funds come from a multitude of lawsuits, most notably a $26 billion settlement resulting from more than 3,000 cities, counties, and states suing manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and distributors McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health for their roles in the opioid crisis.

Payments from that case began this summer and will continue for 18 years, setting up what public health experts and advocates are calling an unprecedented opportunity to make progress against an epidemic that has ravaged America for three decades.

But, they caution, each state seems to have its own approach to these funds, including different distributions between local and state governments and various processes for spending the money. With countless individuals and groups advocating for their share of the pie — from those dealing with addiction and their families to government agencies, nonprofits, health care systems and more — the money’s impact could depend heavily on geography and politics.

“It sounds like a lot of money, but it’s going to a lot of places and going to be spread out over time,” said Sara Whaley, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who tracks state use of opioid funds. “It’s not going to magically end this crisis. But if it’s used well and used thoughtfully, there is an opportunity to make a real difference.”

And if not, it could be just another political boondoggle.

How to avoid the ‘tobacco nightmare’


The worst-case scenario, many say, is for the opioid settlement to end up like the tobacco master settlement of 1998.

States won $246 billion over 25 years, but less than 3% of the annual payouts are used for smoking prevention or cessation programs, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Most has gone toward filling budget gaps, building roads and subsidizing tobacco farmers.

But there are stronger protections in place for the opioid settlement dollars, said Christine Minhee, founder of a website that tracks the funds.

The arrangement specifies that states must spend at least 70% of the money for opioid-related expenses in the coming years and includes a list of qualifying expenses, like expanding access to treatment and buying the overdose reversal medication naloxone. Fifteen percent of the funds can be used for administrative expenses or to reimburse themselves for past opioid-related expenses. Only the remaining 15% can be spent any way the states choose.

If states don’t meet those thresholds, they could face legal consequences and even see their future payouts reduced, Minhee said.

“The kind of tobacco nightmare stuff where only 3% of funds were spent on what they were meant for is legally and technically impossible,” she said. Though, she added, “a different nightmare is still possible.”

Experts tracking the funds say transparency around who receives the money and how those decisions are made is key to a successful and useful distribution of resources.

In Rhode Island, for instance, public comment is a regular part of opioid advisory committee hearings. In North Carolina and Colorado, online dashboards show how much money each locality is receiving and will track how it is spent.

But other states are struggling.

Mistrust grows when there’s little public input


In Ohio, the document that creates a private foundation to oversee most of the state’s funds says that “the Foundation shall operate in a transparent manner” and that meetings and documents will be public. Yet the OneOhio Recovery Foundation has since said it is not subject to open-meetings law. It has adopted a policy that meetings can be closed if the board decides the content is “sensitive or confidential material that is not appropriate for the general public.”

The contradiction between the board’s actions and how it was conceived led Dennis Cauchon, president of Harm Reduction Ohio, which distributes naloxone across the state, to sue the foundation. He said he wants the public to have more say in how the funding is spent.

“The board members are in a closed loop, and they’re having a hard time learning what the needs are,” Cauchon said.

Dennis Cauchon is president of Harm Reduction Ohio. His organization has taken legal action to press for more public input and and transparency in how the state's opioid settlement funds are distributed.
Dennis Cauchon is president of Harm Reduction Ohio. His organization has taken legal action to press for more public input and and transparency in how the state’s opioid settlement funds are distributed.

The 29-member board includes representatives of local regions, as well as appointees from the governor, state attorney general and legislative leaders. Many are city- and county-level politicians, and one is the wife of a U.S. senator. They are not paid for their service as board members.

Nathaniel Jordan, executive director of the nonprofit Columbus Kappa Foundation, which distributes naloxone to Black communities in Ohio, has raised concerns about the board’s lack of racial diversity. Since 2017, Black men have had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the state, he said, but only one board member is Black. “What gives?”

Nathaniel Jordan heads the Columbus Kappa Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes naloxone within hard-hit Black communities in Ohio. He's concerned that the 29-person board of directors of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation includes just one Black member.
Nathaniel Jordan heads the Columbus Kappa Foundation, a nonprofit that distributes naloxone within hard-hit Black communities in Ohio. He’s concerned that the 29-person board of directors of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation includes just one Black member.

Kathryn Whittington, chair of the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, said the board is being “very transparent in what we are doing.” The public can attend meetings in person or online. Recordings of past meetings are posted online, along with the agenda, board packet, and policies discussed — including a draft of the diversity and inclusion policy the board is considering.

People who want to provide input “can always reach out to me as the chair or any other board member,” said Whittington, who added that two of her children have struggled with addiction. But the best option, she said, is to contact one of Ohio’s 19 regional boards. Those groups can elevate local concerns to the foundation board.

“We are still at the very beginning,” Whittington emphasized. No money from the 18-year settlement has been spent yet. The board’s operational expenses — including a $10,000-per-month contract with a public relations firm — is being paid out of $1 million from a previous opioid-related settlement.

But Lewis, the woman raising her granddaughter in Columbus, worries that the day for families to speak may never come.

“They keep saying it’s not ready, and before you know it, they’ll be handing out money and it’ll be too late,” she said.

Rhode Island will spend $2 million on a site where drug use is supervised


Rhode Island is one of the states working fastest to distribute settlement dollars. Its Executive Office of Health and Human Services, which controls 80% of the funds and works with an opioid advisory committee, released a plan to use $20 million by July 2023.

Although the plan doesn’t specify funding for people raising grandchildren, it does allocate $900,000 to recovery supports, which will include community agencies that serve family members, the department said. The single largest allocation, $4 million, will go to school-and community-based mental health programs.

The investment that has sparked the most interest in Rhode Island is $2 million for a supervised drug consumption site. Its location and opening date will be determined by organizations that respond to the state’s request for proposals, said Carrie Bridges Feliz, chair of the opioid settlement advisory committee. At a time when fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin, is infiltrating most street drugs and overdose rates are high, “we were anxious to make use of these funds,” Bridges Feliz said.

Louisiana plans to give 20% of its share to sheriffs


In contrast, the process of distributing settlement dollars in Louisiana has barely begun. State Attorney General Jeff Landry announced in July 2021 that Louisiana was expected to receive $325 million from the 18-year settlement but has not released any additional information. His office did not respond to repeated inquiries about the status of the funds.

The governor’s office and state health department said they could not answer specific questions about the funds and had not yet been contacted by the attorney general’s office, which negotiated the state’s settlement agreement. Multiple clinicians who treat substance use disorder and advocates who work with people who use drugs were similarly in the dark.

The state’s written plan says it will create a five-person task force to recommend how to spend the money. Kevin Cobb, president of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, said the group had appointed its representative to the task force, but he didn’t know if other members had been selected or when they would meet.

One decision Louisiana has made so far is to give 20% of the settlement funds directly to sheriffs — a move that has made some people nervous.

My jail problem will resolve itself if we resolve the problem of opioid addiction.

“This plays into an increase in support for an authoritarian response to what are public health issues,” said Nadia Eskildsen, who has worked for syringe service programs and other such groups in New Orleans.

She worries that the money will be funneled toward increasing arrests, rather than helping people find housing, work or health care. Meanwhile, almost 1,400 Louisiana residents died of opioid-related causes last year.

K.P. Gibson, the Acadia Parish sheriff who will represent the sheriffs’ association on the state task force, said his focus is not on punishment, but on getting people into treatment. “My jail problem will resolve itself if we resolve the problem of opioid addiction,” he said.

Many health and policy experts say using settlement funds to pair mental health professionals with police officers or provide medications for opioid use disorder in prisons could reduce deaths.

Maine to spend 3% on special education; Colorado might expand telehealth


States’ choices generally reflect a range of local priorities: While Louisiana has carved out funds for law enforcement, Maine is dedicating 3% of its statewide share for special education programs in schools, and Colorado has allocated 10% to addiction infrastructure, like workforce training, telehealth expansion, and transportation to treatment.

Maine requires that some funds be used for special education because school districts also sued the opioid companies, said state Attorney General Aaron Frey.

Patricia Hopkins said she signed on to the lawsuit because she’s seen the impact of the opioid crisis on students over the past decade as superintendent of school district 11, a rural part of central Maine’s Kennebec County with 1,950 students.

A report compiled by Hopkins’ staff in 2019 showed nearly 4% of students had a parent dealing with addiction.

Sixty miles north, in rural Penobscot County, school district 19 social worker Meghan Baker said she knows two siblings who were home when first responders arrived to revive their parents with naloxone, and another set of siblings who lost their mother to an overdose.

Students who experience this trauma often become angry, act out at school and find it difficult to trust adults. When Baker refers them to counseling services in the community, they encounter waitlists that run six months to a year.

“If we could hire more guidance counselors and social workers, at least we [could] help some of those kids during the school day,” she said.

It’s clear that many people have high hopes for what the billions of dollars in opioid settlement funds arriving over the next two decades can accomplish. But they have questions too, because effectively using this large pot of money requires planning and forethought.

For people like Jacqueline Lewis in Ohio, whose family has lost so much to an epidemic too long ignored, progress feels slow.

Jacqueline Lewis, son Shaun, and his 7-year-old daughter lived together in a family home in Columbus, Ohio, until this fall, when Shaun died of an overdose.
Jacqueline Lewis, son Shaun, and his 7-year-old daughter lived together in a family home in Columbus, Ohio, until this fall, when Shaun died of an overdose.

As she tries to make do on Social Security, Lewis focuses on the positives: Her granddaughter is a happy child, and her older brother lives with them to help out. But the financial worries gnaw at her. And what if her own health falters before her granddaughter is an adult?