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Shut up and do something 

Everybody is disgusted, outraged, disillusioned, and disappointed. Yet, funding for city school nurses still hasn't been restored.

            Last week there were: two press conferences, an ugly Ways and Means committee meeting, a lawsuit, and a phone-a-thon --- all about the nurses. Leaving city kids without school health care would be a travesty, everyone said. Principals and teachers aren't qualified to dispense medication, handle asthma attacks, or provide other medical services. The children, they said, are in immediate danger.

            But here we are. No money. No nurses. And an April 1 deadline getting awfully big in the window.

            Funding for the city school district nursing program ends March 31. The county --- which has traditionally administered the program --- curtailed funding to help close a $42 million budget gap.

It began on Wednesday, March 3. Two things happened that day: the school district filed suit against Monroe County and County Executive Maggie Brooks, and the lej's Ways and Means committee tabled a motion to tap the county's contingency fund to float the nurses through the end of the school year. (Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson has a task force working on finding private funding possibly beginning next school year.)

            The suit seeks an injunction, essentially forcing the county to pay for the nurses. The case was due to be heard in state Supreme Court Tuesday.

            "We are absolutely at the 11th hour on this issue and need to take immediate action on behalf of our students," says schools Superintendent Dr. Manuel Rivera. "We cannot sit back and wait when the health needs of our children are at risk."

            The school district contends that the county is legally obligated to fund the nursing program. The district wants the layoff notices issued February 20 to 77 nurses and nurses' aides rescinded and a permanent order preventing the county from reducing staffing levels.

            Republicans in the county legislature have consistently contended that they are not legally bound to fund the nurses.

County lej Democrats came up with the idea of using the contingency fund. After all, they said, the fund had been used in the past to pay for a portrait of former County Executive Jack Doyle. Why not use it for the nurses?

            Republicans argue that the $1.5 million in the fund needs to stay there in case the county comes up short when it balances the books from 2003.

            The motion had to make it through the Ways and Means committee before coming up for a vote before the full legislature. The meeting, as one observer aptly described, quickly dissolved into a "pissing contest."

            Before the meeting, Democratic legislator Chris Wilmot predicted Republicans would torpedo the idea "simply because Democrats proposed it." That kind of politics, he said, "is destroying this county."

            Wilmot could not explain why Democrats were asking for $500,000 from the contingency fund, when the nurses' union says it will take at least $600,000 to keep the program going.

            Republican Majority Leader Bill Smith pressed to have the motion tabled because, he said, a bipartisan solution is in the works and a vote would be premature. Only later did it become clear that Smith's idea of a bipartisan solution is getting enough Democrats to go along with the GOP plan. Democrats have blocked a Republican plan to issue bonds to make state-mandated payments for retirement and pension costs. Using savings from the bonding is smarter, Smith says, then paying out cash to fund the program.

            "It is irresponsible for us to do something in the most expensive way possible," he says.

            Democrats say bonding is pushing expenses into the future. The GOP has artificially linked the bonding to the nursing program, they say, to make Democrats look bad, when one really has nothing to do with the other.

            Smith got what he wanted. On advice from the county attorney, Republicans voted to table the motion. The attorney said discussing the motion would be inappropriate because of the just-filed lawsuit. Democrats freaked.

            "I think this ruling is just preposterous," said Democrat Kevin Murray.

            Lawsuits against the county jail, for example, don't prevent the lej from hiring jail employees, adjusting pay, or whatever, Murray said.

            Democrats, Murray vowed, will drag meetings out if they're forced to debate procedure time after time. Committee Chairman Jack Driscoll accused Murray of posturing and of issuing "soft threats of mayhem."

That was Wednesday. The following day, city school union leaders gathered at School 29 to voice their support for the nurses and the lawsuit. They chose School 29 because it has the largest number of kids with needs and conditions that would be impacted by the loss of the nurses. Of the school's 570 students, 125 have conditions that require a nurse on site, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.

            Urbanski expressed disappointment in legislators, accusing them of playing "political football" with the nursing program and adding that removing nurses from schools is "the last thing" legislators would allow for their own children.

            "It's probably as good an example of depersonalizing an issue as I've ever seen," he said.

            Legislators, Urbanski says, are "all good people who are doing a very bad thing."

            The lack of outrage from city school parents is astonishing, Urbanski adds. The problem, he says, is that many parents are unaware of the situation or naively believe "somehow this will be taken care of."

            The teachers union, Urbanski says, will explore filing an Amicus brief in support of the district's lawsuit. The brief would not make the union a party to the litigation. It's filed by a party that feels it will be impacted by the court's decision.

            Later Thursday, a phone-a-thon took place at the James Madison School of Excellence. Volunteers urged people to turn out at two save-the-nurses rallies --- one was Saturday, March 6, and the other was Tuesday right before the lej meeting.

Saturday's rally at New Bethel C.M.E. Church was organized by the church's women's group, Women United for Justice. Members made signs in support of the nurses. A press conference followed by the Rev. Raymond Graves.

            "They're taking nurses out of city schools and it's wrong," says city resident Selina Williams. "All children need health care. Who are they going to go to? The principal? Ridiculous."

            "It tells us how they [county legislators] really feel about our children."

            Boy Scouts and representatives of the business and faith communities attended the rally. The women's group formed last year and has recently taken on the nurses' issue.

            "This is our first major initiative," says the Rev. Shirley Billups-Bell, the group's founder. "I'm a district employee, so I have firsthand information of what goes on in the schools."

            Bell is manager for parent-community involvement at Josh Lofton and James Madison.

            In terms of the nurses, Graves says, the county has failed miserably. County officials, he says, are able to find money for everything else --- a fast ferry, a soccer stadium --- but they are leaving city school kids high and dry.

            "Children's health precedes instruction," he says. "If you're sick, how are you going to learn?"

            The community should hold the county, the city, and the city school district responsible if the nurses aren't restored, Graves says.

            "We aren't going away," he says. "We're going to help find that money."

Speaking of School Nurses, Rochester City School District

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