Cheating kids on their health

Dan Rodricks

February 03, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

At first glance, the decision by Baltimore County's penny-pinching executive to charge for school nurses assigned to the county's 31 private schools sounds like a prudent and fair trim of the budget. But this is one clip job that might cost Roger Hayden more constituent anger than he bargained for, and the protesters have a respectable argument.

This issue is more complicated and explosive than it seems. Believe me. If you want a debate that is guaranteed to rage throughout dinner and spill into dessert, try this one. Position a parochial school mom across from a tax-protest grouch from north county; just make sure all the knives are off the table. You'll have a spirited evening, to say the least.

Hayden presented his case for the cut in mid-January. He hoped to save $490,000 by charging the private schools $175 a day for the nurses.

"That sounds fair," a friend remarked the other day. "What are public nurses doing in private schools anyway?"

Good knee-jerk question -- one I'll bet that few taxpayers ever asked.

I'll further bet that few taxpayers knew the Baltimore County Health Department staffed nurses in private schools. It's been done for about 30 years. Hayden's office says Baltimore County is the last jurisdiction to provide the service "free."

Of course, saying that the county nurses are "free" is a stretch.

If we assume that the parents of a majority of kids in those 31 private schools pay taxes to Baltimore County, then we can assume that they have contributed to the salaries of all the public health nurses already -- just as all county taxpayers, including those who pay tuition to private schools, contribute to the public education system.

"My family has offered a 'free' service to Baltimore County by paying for our three children (ages 11, 9 and 6) to attend a Catholic school," wrote Therese Waldt Radebaugh, a county resident for 14 years. "We have saved the Baltimore County School System $58,272 in expenses thus far." (Her numbers were based on the county's annual cost-per-student rate of $5,336.)

Putting her kids in a Catholic school was Therese Waldt Radebaugh's choice. She's not looking for medals for doing so. But she doesn't like Hayden hitting up St. Joseph's School in Cockeysville, her kids' school, for a school nurse. That's another matter altogether.

I think she's right.

If, say, the county had been providing the private and parochial schools with visiting music or art teachers, then Hayden would be fully justified in either ending the practice or in charging the privates for the service. If he needed it -- and he probably wouldn't -- he could make his case on constitutional grounds.

But, when it comes to school nurses, the issue is public health, not education.

By putting their kids in private schools, county taxpayers know they can no longer expect the public education system to support their kids in any way -- even though they've contributed their tax dollars to it. Every private or parochial school parent understands that.

What they did not bargain for was being double charged for a public health service -- in this case, the school nurses.

If you argue that private schools should not have public nurses without additional charge, then you can argue that private schools should not have public fire and police protection without additional charge. What would the penny-pinching county executive do with the Catholic school fifth-grader who fractures his wrist? Charge for county paramedic service? Suggest that the school hire a private ambulance?

Maybe he should get bolder about this privatization jazz and charge the parochial schools extra for use of the county sewer system.

Really, what are we talking about here? Half a million bucks extra to guarantee that all Baltimore County school kids, including the ones in the 31 private schools, have a nurse and that their parents have some peace of mind.

Hayden needs a remedial course in priorities. If he thinks the school nurse program is too costly -- that there are too many nurses, in other words -- then he should distribute reductions evenly, throughout the system, so that both the public and private schools share the burden.

Right now he's making enemies by nickel-and-diming over a health service that all kids should be guaranteed -- no matter where they go to school.

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