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Schools trying to find money to keep nurse program alive
Part two of a four part series on school nurses
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State funding for school nurses is eliminated in the proposed fiscal year 2010 budget, and that could add to a growing burden put on the local school system.

“The governor has proposed in his budget taking away all funding for nurses, and currently for Effingham County that’s $191,000 a year,” Superintendent Randy Shearouse said. “Then we supplement that, and pay for the rest of our nurses. The total cost with benefits is about $636,000. Basically the state pays for a third of our nursing cost.”

The school system provides a registered nurse at every school, including the pre-kindergarten centers. Funding from the legal settlement with tobacco companies initially funded the school nursing program across the state. That’s been shifted to hospitals to health departments to education before being made a line item in the state budget.

“The governor and legislators decided they would put that money as a line item in the state budget so that it couldn’t go anywhere,” said school nursing coordinator Marsha Cornell. “It would always be there to fund school nurses. Now all of sudden, the purpose was to put it there so it couldn’t go anywhere, but now the governor wants to take it out and put it somewhere else.”

She said the only reason given for the elimination of school nurse funding has been to balance the budget.

“Other programs have been cut. We were the only program that’s been totally eliminated,” Cornell said. “So, we’ve not been given an answer as to why, or where that money’s going to be put, when he was so careful to state we’re going to put it here because then it won’t be touched and nothing will happen to it.”

She said there are many mixed messages and unanswered questions when it comes to state funding.

“We understand these are tough economic times,” Cornell said, “and everybody’s got to do all we can to
do more with less and to make cuts where ever we can and to be very frugal, and to spend money wisely. But something that affects our future, our children, and the future of our country, our society, our state … that’s not really a luxury, that’s essential.”

Cornell said when looking at the proposed budget school nurses are cut, but there are other areas that will be increased.

“We’re talking about taking away nurses to address students’ health needs, but yet we’re going to increase some of these other things that really are not essential,” she said.

“Nurses have always used the slogan ‘children need to be healthy to learn and learn to be healthy.’ A child who’s in school who’s not healthy can’t learn. If they’re unhealthy enough they can’t even be in school then they’re really missing out. They’re not even here. A child who’s healthy and is in school, a staff member who’s healthy and in school and can work to their best performance, everybody benefits from that.”

She said when children are healthy they learn to become a productive adult, and teachers and staff feel good about what they’re doing. The school improves and meets adequate yearly progress.

“We really are support people. We’re not the primary role in education, education is key, but if that child and those staff members are not healthy then that education is not going to happen,” she said. “We are support people, but we feel like, and parents are telling us they feel like, we are not luxuries we are essential support people because with out that child being healthy they’re not going to be able to be in school. That means loss of work time for parents, which affects our economy.”

Cornell said Shearouse, several of the administrators and several board members have expressed concern and support for school nurses, and that they will do everything they can to keep nurses.

“I know that’s sincere, but you just hope that doesn’t become a painful issue,” she said. “All those services are a part of a good well rounded education program. You don’t want to see anything cut.”

She said there are areas where funding is being proposed to go that are important, but is it worth cutting existing programs to begin a program that “could probably wait for less stressful economic times.”

“Not that they’re not important, but just maybe not right now why would we need to cut some of these things in order to add this?”

Shearouse said if the funding cut remains, it will contribute to cuts already made to schools. That would be on top of a 3 percent cut, which is more than $2 million for the Effingham school system, and a proposal not to pay teachers for national board certification.

“That’s another $100,000 that you have to find,” he said. “It doesn’t take long before you really have a big number that you’re having to try to locate. But we do understand the importance of nurses, and we’re going to work very hard if the state doesn’t come up with the money. We’re going to work very hard to make sure we find the money somewhere.”

He said budgets are being discussed with principals and areas that could be cut are being evaluated.

“We did some things this year proactively to try to save money even above what our 2 percent cut is,” Shearouse said. “And one of those is the homestead exemption that the state is supposed to pay systems back. Right now they’re debating on whether or not they’re going to try to come up with that money and send it to local systems.”

Shearouse said there are many questions concerning funding.

“The federal government is talking about sending school systems some additional money, and states some additional money for education, and so there’s still some questions there about how much money that would be,” he said. “Right now we’re planning to make some cuts, but we’re hoping those cuts won’t have to be made because of some varying things that may happen.”

Shearouse said he doesn’t think that anyone needs to be alarmed at this point because there is time for things to change, and there are many unknowns concerning funding.

“I think this board is going to make a commitment to not cut salaries, hopefully, and of course, not cut any positions,” he said. “We may not grow any. The state has allowed us to grow by two students per class, so that’s going to help us not have to hire any additional teachers, and that’s kindergarten through eighth grade. That will be a savings for us because we’ve grown so much recently, and had to add so many teachers we think we can handle the growth.

“The state’s not giving a raise for teachers, and you hate not giving a cost of living raise. But that also costs the local system a lot of money, so we don’t have to worry about that trying to come up with the additional money to try to fulfill that raise the state is giving.”