Cut idea makes nurses sick

School district leaders are considering a one-quarter cut that would leave three nurses serving more than 13,000 students in Chico’s 23 public schools.

“I think that would be a big liability for the district,” said Ann Scott, one of the nurses, who, in addition to such mandates as hearing and vision testing, must squeeze in care of children with cystic fibrosis, seizure disorders, catheters and other special needs. They also respond to emergencies, provide health counseling and teach staff and students. “Something has to give, and mandates talk first,” Scott said. “Taking care of kids is going to be secondary to that.”

With one of the Chico Unified School District’s nurses, Bridgid Miller, retiring, administrators have proposed leaving that position vacant to help meet an anticipated $1.8 million in budget cuts.

“We’d have to absorb her whole position,” said Scott, who personally would go from being responsible for 4,500 students to 5,395. Nurse Elli Tiller would handle 4,249 kids, while Margaret Rader would take on 3,529. (A fifth nurse is assigned solely to the pregnant-minors program at Fair View High School.) The California School Nurses Organization recommends one nurse to every 1,200 students in elementary grades; 1:1,500 in secondary grades.

Nurses narrowly escaped the chopping block back in 1999, when trustees refused administrators’ suggestion of saving $84,000 by cutting the nursing staff from five to three.

Deputy Superintendent Jim Sands said district office administrators in “pretty much a group decision” chose to suggest the school board consider not filling the retiring nurse’s position.

Bob Feaster, the CUSD director in charge of the nursing services, said the position has been “frozen” as the district waits to see what happens with the state budget. “This year’s bad. Next year is going to be worse,” he said.

If a nurse is lost, Feaster said, “it will be tight. They would be working harder. In the real world, everything’s not going to get done.” But he said it’s the same deal in the district office, where a director job won’t be refilled, and elsewhere in the schools.

Scott planned to present the nurses’ concerns, with the support of several Parent-Teacher Association groups, at the May 15 Board of Trustees meeting, after the News & Review’s press time.

“We absorb more and more mandates [13,174 tests a year] and more and more kids,” Scott said. But in the CUSD, the employment hours allotted to school nurses has never followed suit. Rather, nurses retired and were not replaced.

Scott contacted a dozen school districts, half of them in Butte County, and the only one to have a lower nurse-to-student ratio is Martinez Unified, where CUSD Superintendent Scott Brown used to be in charge.

“Locally, we’ve been coming up short,” she said.

Last year, the News & Review ran a cover story on modern school nursing. The CUSD nurses were loathe to criticize the administration. Now, Scott said, they’ve had enough.

Scott said she’s upset not only at the idea of the cuts, but also by the way the nurses learned they were being considered. “No one was willing to tell us what was going on with the position,” she said. “I thought it was pretty sneaky.”

The nurses wondered why the district wasn’t advertising for the open position. Then, the district started advertising for the equivalent of 1.4 nursing positions, which Scott said some perceived as Miller’s job. Instead, those nurses are to cover the special-education services the CUSD is taking back from the Butte County Office of Education.

Sands said no one tried to hide the idea, and the nurses’ work is valued. "I always said it’s just one of the things that we’re considering."