Monroe County legislators have sure taken a pounding over the school nurse fiasco, and they probably deserve it. But those who accuse them of politicizing the problem miss the fact that it was --- at birth --- a political issue.
When then-County Executive Jack Doyle announced late last year that he was slashing the nurses' subsidy, he blamed Democrats because the Dems refused to support a bonding proposal which, he said, would have saved the county money. The nurses' cut was one of a long list of cuts aimed heavily at Doyle's favorite target: the city. Democratic legislators Todd Bullard, Mitch Rowe, and Stephanie Aldersley --- clearly blindsided by the news --- were at that press conference. A flush-faced Aldersley took questions from the media. Rowe was so angry he could barely speak, and, in fact, seemed close to tears.
And then it got bad.
What we've seen since that morning was one nasty game of chicken splashed-out in headlines and leading the 5 o'clock news. Republicans would float the nurses to the end of the school year if Democrats supported the bond. Forget the bonding, Democrats said --- directing attention instead to the county's $1.5 million contingency fund --- what's that there under the mattress?
No one blinked.
You know it by heart, no doubt. Layoff notices were mailed to 77 nurses and nurses' aides. The city school district went the judicial route, and lost. The latest is that City Schools District Superintendent Manuel Rivera is stitching together a group of private donors to try to save the program for this year. Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson has a taskforce working to find a permanent solution.
So the kids keep their nurses, provided Rivera can find the money. The nurses --- the ones that stuck around, anyway --- keep their jobs. And county lawmakers' "Q" rating rests somewhere south of Tierra del Fuego: looking bitterly partisan and --- perhaps --- increasingly irrelevant.
Democrat and Chronicle columnist Mark Hare had a good point when he wrote that for all the moaning the county leadership does about unfunded mandates, it sure was quick to make the nurses the city's responsibility. The GOP will tell you that all it did was put city schools on equal footing with their suburban counterparts. They apparently forget that the city helps fund the sheriff's road patrol, essentially subsidizing towns that could well afford their own police force.
But let's talk about that bonding for a minute. Republicans said if Dems voted for the bonding to make state-mandated pension payments, they'd use some of the savings to keep the nurses. It's not a choice between borrowing and not borrowing, Majority Leader Bill Smith said. The bill has to be paid and the county can do it by borrowing the money from the state comptroller or by issuing bonds at a lower rate.
Simple arithmetic. He's right. But the pension bill didn't drop out of the sky. During the high times of the 1990s, counties' contributions to the state retirement system dropped dramatically, but everybody should have known that the good times wouldn't last forever. So what were our leaders doing? Putting money away for that rainy day when the bills came due? Or draining the county's coffers to blindly freeze the property tax levy?
A side note: the bonding did come within inches of passing the legislature the fourth time it was put to vote. Three Democrats --- with the nurses in mind --- voted with Republicans, leaving the referral one vote shy of the majority it needed to pass. Word is that those Democrats are living like lepers among their caucus now.
Something else to chew on: Republicans say the reason they can't tap the contingency fund is that they might need the money once the county settles accounts from 2003. So what was with that Doyle press release last fall trumpeting that the county was ending the year in the black? That couldn't have had anything to do with the fact that it was an election year, right? $1.5 million is a lot of money to you and me, but in the context of a $970 million budget, it's peanuts. Are we cutting it that close? Scrounging for pennies on the sidewalk?
Maggie Brooks is nice. Everyone says so. The public likes her. The mayor seems charmed by her. Aldersley doesn't blame her for the theatrics that took place in the legislature during the nurses' crisis.
But so what?
The partisan divide is as great as it's ever been in the legislature right now. If Brooks tells Minority Leader Aldersley an hour before the lej meeting that the bonding absolutely will not come up for vote --- and it does anyway --- what does that mean? Aldersley doesn't believe the county executive lied. So what's the other option? That she has little or no input into the workings of the Republican caucus? So, who's running things? Smith? Party Chairman Steve Minarik? How does that make her anything more than County Spokesman Maggie Brooks?
That's harsh. But it's hard remembering Brooks' campaign pledge to end the partisan rancor in the county, all the while watching the legislature tear itself apart. And doing so while people's jobs hang in the balance and the least of us wonders who will be there when our children get sick.
A run-down house is still a run-down house, even with a beautiful row of azaleas planted out front.
But at least Jack Doyle doesn't live here anymore.
An appeal in the works?
The Rochester School Board met Tuesday night to discuss whether or not to appeal the court's ruling on school nurses. Last week, Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Fisher ruled that the county is not obligated to fund city school health services.
"My staff is working with me to refine our theories of appeal, and until I brief the board, I am reluctant to address specifics," says district counsel Michael Looby.
Looby and schools Superintendent Manuel Rivera have both said publicly that they recommend appealing the ruling.
Countering the GOP argument that eliminating the county's nurse subsidy puts city schools on an equal footing with schools in the suburbs, Lobby explains that unlike those other schools, the Rochester City School District is fiscally dependent on the city and cannot raise taxes on its own or bond.
"The amount of local revenue available is a function of the capacity and will of a different entity, and unlike most of the other districts, the tax base upon which that capacity is predicated has been dropping for a number of years," Looby says.
"At the same time," Looby says, "the concentration of poverty inside the city carries with it the unfortunate fact that [city schools] will typically have a larger population of students with serious health and social needs than is the case in a more affluent community."
Meanwhile, Rivera has created an emergency fund to save the school nurse program. Financial commitments have come thus far from Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, Unity Health System, ViaHealth, the University of Rochester Medical Center/Strong Health, and the Rochester Rotary Club.
The fund is being managed by the newly formed Rochester Education Foundation. Anyone interested in donating should call 271-4100.