Nurses warn school district courting disaster

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The reduction in nursing staff has put student’s health at risk, nurses say.

By Knowles Adkisson / Special to The Malibu Times

A routine meeting of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education turned controversial Thursday night after school district nurses complained that an unmanageable workload was putting students’ health at risk.

Following a report on the district’s health services, three nurses issued emotional pleas to the board to restore two nursing positions that had been eliminated earlier this year. Meg Mahon, a nurse who provides services for Juan Cabrillo, Webster, and Point Dume elementary schools, said that with the reduction in staff, “Nurses are scrambling to keep up and scrambling to provide care.”

The school district made drastic budget cuts in May following a severe reduction in state funding, which included the two lost nursing positions. Priority was then given to diabetic children, forcing nurses to spend much of their time on the road, shuttling between schools.

“We had 11 [nurses] last year and we covered fine without as many issues as we’re having this year,” Nora McElvain, a nurse at Santa Monica High School, said.

Office staff, after cursory training from district nurses, has been pressed into duty as a stopgap measure under the title of “health clerks,” with which both nurses and office staff say they are uncomfortable.

“We can train unlicensed staff to do tasks,” McElvain said, “[but] we cannot give them the nursing knowledge and the judgment that comes from many years of nursing school, a credentialing program and our day-to-day experience.”

She explained that the intensive care required for diabetic children has taken attention away from children with less serious health issues.

“We have kids getting stiffed because there are no nurses where they are,” she said.

McElvain suggested the presence of more nurses could actually save the district money by preventing unnecessary 911 calls. Health clerks have called 911 twice this school year for children suffering anxiety attacks, and, McElvain said, parents could be reimbursed by the district for the cost of the ambulance ride, which can be thousands of dollars.

Board of Education members varied in their responses yet agreed that long-term budget constraints had to be considered. Board member Ralph Mechur advocated restoring the two nursing positions for the rest of the year.

“Short term, it seems clear that after the first two months of this year, we’re shorting our students, we’re shorting our staff,” Mechur said. “We’re potentially creating a situation where some [disastrous] incident could occur, which we desperately don’t want.”

Outgoing Board Vice-President Kelly Pye concurred, and requested that an action item on restoring the positions be placed on the agenda for the board’s Dec. 9 meeting, which board members voted to approve.

However, board member Maria Leon-Vazquez was hesitant about the strain this would put on the budget.

“In the short run, yes, we could probably put back the two nurses just between now and June 30, [but] we’re back to the drawing board as we study the agenda for the following 2011-2012 year and having to make cuts again,” she said.

Leon-Vazquez stressed the long-term importance of finding an economical staffing balance where “at least we could cover more ground with less nurses, but better choices than just these health clerks [who] were just kind of temporarily put in place.”

It is not clear yet whether the passage of Measure Y, a sales tax increase expected to bring in approximately $12 million, and Measure YY, an advisory measure which asked voters if they thought that 50 percent of the Measure Y sales tax, should go to public education, would enable the restoration of the nurses and other cuts.

Since the May staff cuts, several positions have been restored, but outgoing Board President Barry Snell expressed concern about sustaining those positions in addition to restoring the nursing jobs.

“I don’t think anyone on the board wants to jeopardize our students’ health,” he said, “but I also have to remind the board how difficult it was in May to make the kind of cuts we made, and within six months we have now brought back librarians, an additional counselor and now we’re talking about adding nurse care… … I question whether or not we will be able to sustain what we’ve been doing [restoring positions] over the last two to three months.”

The board will decide at its Dec. 9 meeting at District Headquarters, whether to reinstate one or both of the nursing positions.