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Health Department: School-nurse program can't be continued at a lesser level

June 13, 2012|By ANDREW SCHOTZ | andrews@herald-mail.com

The Washington County Health Department can’t continue to provide an efficient nurse program in county schools if it is scaled back, Health Officer Earl Stoner said Wednesday.

The department crunched the numbers at the request of  Washington County Public Schools, which are trying to figure out how to continue mandatory health services for students beyond June 30, when current funding for the school-nurse program will end.

The health department was left out of discussions about the program between the school system and Washington County government, according to interviews this week.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners’ decision earlier this month to cut $3.3 million for the program triggered a search for new funding.

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Stoner said in a voicemail message on Tuesday night: “My last word from the county was after they had set their preliminary budget and that was that we were level funded. So I was obviously fairly shocked to hear that the program was basically zeroed out of the budget.”

County Administrator Gregory B. Murray said Wednesday that the county and the school system had several rounds of talks over a few months about how to handle an imminent shift in teacher-pension costs.

When the Maryland General Assembly agreed on a pension-shift plan in a special session in mid-May, the county and school system agreed the county would pick up the new $3.1 million pension cost for the first year.

In return, the school system would take over funding for the school-nurse program, although the cost and scope weren’t specified, Murray said.

The county commissioners agreed on June 5 to stop paying $3.3 million for the health department’s school-nurse program, effective July 1, which is the start of fiscal 2013. Murray let Stoner know in an email shortly after the vote.

Stoner said in an interview on Wednesday that he responded shortly after getting the notification by telling Murray that without a committed funding source for the coming year, he’d have to lay off employees in the school-nurse program.

The health department then sent layoff notices to all 76 nurses and assistants in the program.


‘Inflammatory’ layoffs

Murray said Wednesday that Stoner’s decision to immediately lay off employees was “inflammatory” and meant as a statement to draw attention to the issue.

He said the county and the school system had agreed to set aside money to keep the school-nurse program running for part of the new fiscal year. The county had $250,000 in its budget, and the school system had $175,000 in its budget, he said.

That total of $425,000 could give the health department about two months in fiscal 2013, plus most of June — almost 90 days — to figure out future funding with the school system, Murray said.

But Stoner said Murray’s assertion misses the point of how drastic and pressing the situation had become for the health department.

As a state agency, the county’s health department must give 60 days’ notice for layoffs, meaning those employees are guaranteed pay for 60 days, in addition to payment for their accumulated leave time, he said.

By issuing layoff notices in early June, the health department was obligated to pay about $590,000 in salaries and accumulated leave time to the school-nurse program employees losing their jobs, Stoner said.

The longer the layoffs were put off, the worse the financial obligation the health department would have had.

Stoner said Murray told him there could be $250,000 available from the county to help, but he didn’t know about the school system’s $175,000 until a reporter told him on Wednesday.

However, even $425,000 wasn’t enough to cover the department’s liability of $590,000, he said.


School system’s move

Stoner said the health department provided the school system with an answer late in the day on Wednesday about whether the school-nurse program can be continued at a lesser level. The answer is that it can’t, he said.

The next move is the school system’s, Stoner said.

He said it sounds as if the school district doesn’t want to continue the school-nurse program through the health department and would rather try another approach.

School officials have said they will provide health services to students.

County Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has said there’s no guarantee those services will be provided by the health department, but he and Stoner are working toward a bridge plan to cover the cost of health services for the rest of the summer school sessions, beyond June 30.

Then, they’ll negotiate again regarding health services for the new school year, Wilcox has said.

Wilcox said Tuesday that he and Murray had been talking for about a month about their respective budgets, including the school health services program, but he thought the program would be discussed with health department officials during the upcoming fiscal year.

He said he found out two or three days before the commissioners’ vote that one option Murray was going to present the commissioners was to cut funding for school health services.

But Murray said the concept of cutting the school-nurse program was part of ongoing budget discussions between the county and school system for at least a few weeks.

The day before the commissioners’ vote, the county and school system went over the exact numbers, Murray said.

School officials watched an online telecast of the commissioners’ June 5 discussion and vote, he said.

Staff Writer Julie E. Greene contributed to this story.

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