We are all keenly aware, as it has been drummed into our heads for a couple of years now, that the School District of Philadelphia is in financial crisis. We further understood that this deficit — more than $600 million and yet somehow still rising — would lead to painful cuts in programs and personnel.
We’ve watched helplessly as extracurricular activities, sports, art and music fell one by one to the budget axe. We sat on our hands through the first few rounds of layoffs, even while some favored private contractors (and a few administrators) gorged shamelessly at the public trough District officials swore had run dry.
The money coming in never quite equaled the money going out, and virtually none of it ever made its way to the communities, the schools and the students who needed it most. Long-suffering parents, taxpayers and stakeholders endured each indignity, assured that tighter fiscal controls and better oversight would pave the way for better days ahead. Of course, we were given those assurances by the same band of gypsies who stole the money in the first place, but that’s another story for another time.
My roundabout point here is someone is going to have to draw a line somewhere.
Effective Dec. 31, 141 District employees — including 47 nurses, 28 secretaries, 18 non-teaching assistants and others — will lose their jobs in the latest game of musical chairs the District calls “belt tightening measures.”
If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you’re mistaken. As a product of the Philadelphia public schools, and as one who spent significant portions of those years in the nurse’s office, taking away school nurses is easily the most shortsighted, band-aid-on-a-bullet-wound budgetary move yet devised.
True, I had more sprains, broken bones, contusions, concussions, scrapes, bumps, bruises and boo-boos than most — but still, fewer than others. Multiple sports activities, plus a teenager’s natural penchant for stupid human tricks and boneheaded stunts often resulted in a trip to the nurse’s office. Having a trained, qualified health care professional in every school is not a luxury — it is the right of every child and parent in the system.
If school nurses were essential back in the ’70s, they are irreplaceable today, when so many more students have so many more problems requiring medical attention. The number of kids who are asthmatic has skyrocketed since those old days, not to mention the numbers of students on various medications, which must be dispensed and monitored during school hours.
Imagine what happens when a child gets sick — I mean really sick — and no one is trained on what to do. Imagine what happens when the parents then sue the school district for negligence, and probably win. How much money will we have saved from pink slipping the school nurses then?
You might as well remove all the handrails and banisters from the stairwells in every school and sell them as scrap iron for ten cents a pound. Then you can brag about pulling in a couple of thousand bucks in savings — while personal injury attorneys station themselves at the bottom of the stairs offering a fat payday for each turned ankle.
It was a school nurse who first recommended that my eyesight be re-tested in elementary school. She was right, and I’ve been wearing glasses ever since. How many other kids with hearing loss, vision problems and a host of other ailments owe that initial diagnosis to a caring school nurse? And the converse question: How many will now go unnoticed, undiagnosed and untreated when those nurses are gone?
We’re not just talking about taking away band instruments or after school clubs here (although that would be bad enough). A school nurse can, and has, made the difference in certain life-saving situations, by providing a trained eye when every second counts.
It’s hard to imagine the back-and-forth among school administrators that day when the conversation turned to the subject of getting rid of school nurses. What bothers me more than whoever made the idiotic recommendation in the first place is that everyone else in the room didn’t shout it down as the exercise in stupidity that it clearly is.
The lawsuits alone will bankrupt the system so fast their heads will spin.
Next brilliant idea: Since new cars aren’t selling very well, perhaps auto manufacturers can save some money by eliminating unnecessary gadgets — like brakes, air bags and seat belts.
That should save a few bucks, right?
Daryl Gale is the Philadelphia Tribune's city editor.