Baltimore's school-based health centers will continue to be funded by the city after the budget was passed last month restoring the imperiled program, a move that parents lauded even as the school system works to find money to pay for other student resources that were cut.
All of the city's 13 health centers will remain open next school year, thanks in part to additional revenue that will come via new taxes. But school officials have not determined where they will find $6.2 million the city budget did not restore for half the city's crossing guards and free bus passes for students.
However, the school system plans to fully absorb the costs, said Mike Frist, budget director for city schools. The school board passed its $1.23 billion budget in April, but Frist said that officials would look to carry over money from last fiscal year's budget to fund the programs and operate them more efficiently. He said the amount of carryover funds from last year will not be determined until August but that strategies are being discussed to cover the costs.
"We will work with principals to ensure passes are only issued to eligible students," Frist said in an e-mail. "Plans are to maintain full force and to review criteria for placement of crossing guards."
Frist said that the city would monitor distribution of bus passes so that only students who are outside schools' designated walking distances receive them, though he did not know whether there were problems with distribution in the past. The school system issued nearly 362,000 MTA student ticket booklets last year.
Frist also said that the city and the school system will work together to determine where the 422 city crossing guards are placed.
While cuts to all three student services were possibilities this year, parents and school administrators protested more loudly about the possible cuts to the school-based health centers.
The 13 centers are run by the city's Health Department and are staffed by a certified nurse practitioner who is authorized to provide treatment above and beyond what parents called "pop a pill and take a nap" services found in basic health suites, which are usually staffed by nursing assistants.
City Springs Elementary garnered the attention of school and City Council officials after the school's principal and parents organized early in the budget process to lobby against the cuts. A group of parents submitted a petition against the cuts to city officials and voiced concerns at the city's "taxpayer night."
"I'm relieved and very glad that my parents made the noise that they did," said Rhonda Richetta, principal of City Springs. "The concerns that I have about my children not being taken care of properly healthwise are gone."
More than 90 percent of City Springs' students are registered in the health center to receive care that includes daily treatments for asthma, immunizations and prescriptions. About 100 students are on the school's "medical alert list" for potentially life-threatening illnesses.
These were statistics that rattled Councilman James B. Kraft, who communicated with Richetta and the group of parents who petitioned the cuts.
The statistics "really took me aback," Kraft said. "To see that this health center was providing this level of health care, it was very important. It is the primary health care provider for these children."
He said he had no qualms about additional taxes paying for the health centers, comparing it to the taxes that residents would pay anyway for emergency room visits and insurance premiums.
"It was persistence on their part and the City Council's part, and it really shows what happens when parents and the administration come together," he added.
Sharone Henderson, president of the parent-teacher organization at City Springs, said she was excited when a staffer from City Hall told her that additional taxes would save the health centers.
"If you're looking to raise taxes, then make it worthwhile," she said. "To me, looking out for our kids is worthwhile. You're going to have some people who complain about it, but for us in this low-income bracket, it means a lot."