Often, nurses are the first line of defense for a sick child in public schools, and according to the nurses who hold weekly rallies on Wednesday outside of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters, the children they serve will be most affected by the ongoing cuts.
“The day before we broke for winter break, we received notice that 47 nurses were to be laid off, and that’s on top of the 47 or so that were laid off last year,” said longtime school nurse Eileen Duffey, one of the main organizers of the weekly rally. “So we lost close to 100 nurses; and in December, we heard the school district had to cut the budget, and it didn’t do any kind of big look at the picture, or look at the most important things that couldn’t be cut.
“They just said there had to be cuts because the school district is in the hole so badly.”
The school district was required to take drastic action after it was discovered that the district faced a $68 million dollar budget gap that had to be closed by the end of the academic fiscal year, which falls in June. To meet its financial obligations, the district had to undertake a series of painful austerity measures, including slashing many after-school programs, shuttering school buildings and attached recreation centers on weekends, furloughing per diem security personnel and cutting the number of school nurses working in the district.
Making matters worse, City Controller Alan Butkovitz spared no feelings in a scathing report recently issued by his office, stating that the controller didn’t have confidence that the school budget could turn around for this year, while setting an ominous outlook for next year’s school budget.
By taking these measures, the district has been able to cut this year’s budget gap by more than half — it now sits at $28 million.
School spokesman Fernando Gallard acknowledges the district made these cuts, but says the district had no choice.
“These are cuts we did not want to make, did not plan to take and only made them to offset the tremendous, challenging budget gap we’re facing,” Gallard said. “And we’re still working on closing the budget gap for this year, and unfortunately, it forces us to make choices we wouldn’t have made otherwise.”
Gallard said the district’s current financial woes are something school officials do not want to revisit, and that’s why these measures must be taken up now.
“It is a situation we don’t want to ever be in again,” Gallard said. “But in order to balance the budget, we had to make these difficult cuts. And we have put together a plan to make sure schools have adequate [nurse] coverage.”
The nurses’ rally outside of district headquarters has drawn the support of prominent politicians — including state Representative W. Curtis Thomas — who endorses the demonstrations.
“School nurses are intertwined in the present and future of a quality education experience,” said the lawmaker through a statement released by his office.
Duffey — a pediatric nurse for 30 years before becoming a school nurse 10 years ago — is sympathetic to the position the district finds itself in, but believes by cutting medical personnel, sick students will be left to pay the price.
“I am taking care of 1,500 students in three schools; this goes back to an old law from the 1940s that stipulates a 1,500-1 nurse-patient ratio,” Duffey said. “The national Association of Nurses says schools should have a 750-1 ratio, but that’s only a recommendation; they can’t force policy or legislation.
“I am in a school with four autistic support classes, and I am there only once a week.”
Duffey said it’s the nurses who keep all the confidential medical records of patients, and no one — including the principal — has access to them; and while other school officials are busy with groups of kids for practically the entire day, the nurse can take his or her time with a student and develop a one-on-one relationship.
“I used to be part of teams that would sit back and look at the big picture. A nurse is the only true patient-student advocate,” Duffey said. “Not that the others don’t care; but a principal has other people he has to answer to, and a teacher has to manage 33 other students. A nurse deals with one patient at a time, and is trained as a professional to advocate for the patient.
“The nurses’ eyes are the eyes that protect a vulnerable student.”
Duffey says she works in three schools — George W. Nebinger, Stephen Girard and Academy at Palumbo — and refuses to sit back while the district is hijacked by the bottom dollar.
“We’re like a colony being taken over by the state, and the School Reform Commission is at the mercy of the governor,” Duffey said. “I do not mind sticking my neck out for our children, because we have a governor is who is unbelievably mean-spirited toward vulnerable children.”