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Lack of communication at heart of layoff fiasco

June 19, 2012

What looked to be a simple funding shift affecting Washington County’s public-school nursing program turned into a fiasco because of a poor job of communication on the parts of all concerned.

County Administrator Greg Murray blamed Washington County Health Department leadership, which he said “made it a crisis” by sending out layoff notices to 76 school nurses after the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted to cut funding to the health department that paid for the program.

However, by not involving the health department in discussions prior to the vote, school system leadership, and Murray and the commissioners sowed the seeds for a crisis.

In an admittedly convoluted approach, the county pays the health department to provide nurses for the schools. The county abruptly voted to end that funding earlier this month.

Murray said there is, and always was, a plan for the county and the school system to exchange nursing expenses for pension costs, which would lead to a seamless continuation of the nursing program.

Murray said the county and the school system had agreed to set aside a total of $425,000 to 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.

The commissioners, too, said it was always their intention to keep the nursing program, and that funding was only cut with the understanding that the school system would pick it up. In exchange, the county would pay for additional pension costs that had been previously paid for by the state.

To his credit, Murray notified Health Officer Earl Stoner, the head of the health department, immediately after the vote. As it was, Stoner was spurred to react based on state requirements.

The health department was on the clock; it needed to give nurses a 60-day termination notice, and would be responsible for paying for those 60 days, even if no county money was forthcoming. To the health department, time mattered.

Stoner said that the money that was set aside would not even be enough to fund the health department’s existing liability after he sent layoff notices in early June.

The commissioners might feel blindsided by the health department’s layoff notices, but no less blindsided than the health department itself felt when it learned suddenly that funding for the program had been cut.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the county commissioners did not say during a June 5 meeting that the school nurse program would continue. The commissioners offered assurances that the program would continue.

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