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Washington County school board's updated budget includes new health services program

Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he is not 'married' to continuing to use Washington County Health Department

June 19, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
  • School Nurse Teresa James of Hagerstown speaks to members of the Washington County Board of Education Tuesday during the public comments portion of a school board meeting.
By Colleen McGrath, Staff Photographer

About 40 community members, including school nurses and parents, turned out Tuesday to see the Washington County Board of Education approve an updated budget that sets aside $2 million toward a new school health services program.

But what that program will be is still to be determined, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the crowd.

School nurses criticized the failure to inform them about the status of the program. They also voiced concerns that they might not be included in the still-to-be-designed health services program and for the continuity of care they provide students.

“If we can be part of the communications because these are ... the boots on the ground. These are the nurses and the CNAs (certified nursing assistants) who have been in schools, know your students, know the health issues. I know that we’re all interested in finding out whether we’ll be part of the solution in the fall, or, whether we’re released,” school nurse Teresa James said.

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James asked about reports that Meritus Health would provide school nursing care.

Wilcox has said he is not “married” to continuing to use the Washington County Health Department to provide school health services.

After the meeting, Wilcox said he received a framework from Meritus Health on Monday that provides a preliminary outline of how it would provide school health services, with dollar figures assigned to parts of it.

Wilcox said he planned to call County Health Officer Earl Stoner later Tuesday to share some elements of the proposal.

State law requires the school system and health department to work together to design a health services program for the schools, but it does not require the health department to provide those services.

The structure of school health services was plunged in limbo after the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted June 5 to cut $3.3 million to the health department for school health services.

As a result, layoff notices were issued to 76 school nurses and assistants, effective June 30, because the health department, as a state agency, must give 60 days’ notice for layoffs, Stoner has said.

The school system will now take over the cost of the health service program while the county pays for the share of teacher pension costs passed down from the state.

Wilcox said he wanted to take this opportunity to review how health services are provided.

The school board voted 6-0 Tuesday to approve an updated $250.4 million general fund, or operating budget, that makes adjustments to include revenue from the county for pension costs and shifts some expenses to provide $2 million toward a new health services program.

Board member W. Edward Forrest was absent.

Wilcox and other school system officials said the $2 million is a start toward making money available for health services, and that future budget adjustments will need to be made after the fiscal year starts July 1.

After the meeting, Wilcox said he didn’t think the new health services program would be more expensive than the old one, but it might be.

“We’re not doing this for the money. ... We’re there because we care, and we genuinely care,” school nurse Kristy Wentz said.

Parent Heidi Welsh said she sent a letter to the Maryland attorney general, asking him to investigate the legality of the commissioners’ decision to cut funding for school health services.

In her letter, Welsh said the commissioners’ decision was an “end run around the law” because state legislators did not intend for the “maintenance of effort” to be cut so counties could pay for pension costs.

Jurisdictions are required to provide school systems with at least as much per-student funding as they did the previous year, with the total going up or down based on enrollment changes.

After the meeting, Wilcox said there is a difference of opinion among school system officials about whether the commissioners honored the state legislature’s intent when they cut health service funding.

But Wilcox said he does not believe the decision merits a legal challenge by the school system because school health services have always been funded outside of maintenance of effort.

A petition Welsh posted online to urge the commissioners to restore funding for school nurses had 31 signatures as of Tuesday night.

The petition can be found at www.change.org/petitions/washington-county-maryland-county-commissioners-restore-funding-for-school-nurse-program-2.

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