Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel speaks in support of increasing the health department millage rate to pay to put a nurse in every school during an Aug. 3 meeting.
CLEARWATER – County commissioners have agreed to help fund a plan to put a nurse in every Pinellas County School, starting in fiscal year 2017-2018.
To pay for the nurses, commissioners unanimously agreed to raise the Health Department millage rate from 0.0622 to 0.0835. The cost for an average single-family home valued at $131,000 would be an additional $2.79 a year.
At a budget information session Aug. 3, commissioners, school district officials and Department of Health Director Ulyee Choe talked about the need for nurses and lack of funding. Currently, only about half of the district’s schools have nurses, and some nurses rotate between schools.
Everyone agreed putting a full time nurse in every school is a top priority. However, an additional $1.5 million is needed to fund the program, which prompted the increase in the Health Department millage.
The school district pays $3.1 million a year for school nurses, which covers the cost of a nurse in about one-third of public schools, but not all are full time, according to School Board Chairwoman Peggy O’Shea. The Juvenile Welfare Board pays about $1 million a year to fund five school-based clinics, and the state pays about $1.1 million, Choe said.
Sarah O’Toole, managing officer for School Health Services, said multiple full time nurses are located in the school district’s two centers for special needs students. Full time nurses also are staffed on a priority basis in schools with students who have feeding tubes, catheters or Type 1 diabetes that need insulin shots.
She told commissioners that the need for full time nurses was growing because more students were coming to school that had chronic diseases. Still all students need access to full time nurses for a myriad of health care reasons.
The consensus is that the state should pay the cost; however, Commissioner Karen Seel, who championed the initiative for full time school nurses, says the county’s charter makes public health a county responsibility, which justifies asking for a millage rate increase.
O’Toole said the school district would start recruiting and interviewing as soon as possible for 65 new nurses. The plan is to move from RNs (registered nurses) to LPNs (Licenses Practical Nurses) to save costs.
Commissioner Charlie Justice asked Choe if he had another $1.5 million would he give No. 1 priority to school nurses.
“There are a lot of needs in Pinellas,” Choe said, adding that the most prevalent was access to care, which school nurses would provide for the county’s children.
Full time nurses would be available in every public school – elementary, middle school and high school. Charter schools are not included in the plan.
Justice is disappointed that the school district seems to have given up on getting funding from Tallahassee.
Commissioner Ken Welch agreed saying that others also had given up on state lawmakers’ ability to take care of people’s needs. He said everything is linked – poverty, learning gap, kids’ access to health care.
“I’d love for the state to step up, but how long are we going to wait,” he said.
Commissioner John Morroni is concerned about having to take the nurses out of schools if voters approve an additional homestead exemption in November 2018, which would cost millions of dollars in revenue for local government.
Choe assured the commission that he was committed to keeping nurses in every school and promised to make cuts elsewhere if necessary.
Commissioner Dave Eggers brought up the possibility of funding nurses incrementally over a 3-year time and continuing talks with state legislators. Implementing the program in steps would help ensure it was affordable in the future, he said.
Commissioner Pat Gerard disagreed, saying the program should be funded all at once.
“It is small increase with a powerful impact,” she said. “I think we’ll have public support for doing what we need to do to get every school a nurse.”
Seel said she looked at every resource she could think of to try to find funding before she suggested the millage increase, saying again that by charter, county government is responsible for public health.
“This will make a significant difference,” she said.
Still some commissioners fear that taking on funding responsibilities that arguably should be done by other entities – state or federal government – will open the door to others that need money.
Welch agreed, saying the commission had to consider priorities when being asked to fill funding gaps. He said in the case of school nurses, the commission had a strong partner (the school board) and facilities to deliver the services. He also said they shouldn’t “let the state off the hook.”
Eggers argued that the need for access to care wasn’t just for kids.
“What about the rest,” he said. “We need a broader discussion to see the whole picture.”
Seel agreed that discussions were needed to find a way to add care for the elderly and the homeless.
“We can’t accomplish everything at one time,” she said. “This is our kids … We have to help our kids now to save in the future.”