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Parents, union rally against plan to privatize school nursing services

When her medically fragile son was in kindergarten, Sabrina Jones had a rotating cast of private-duty nurses at his Philadelphia public school.

When her medically fragile son was in kindergarten, Sabrina Jones had a rotating cast of private-duty nurses at his Philadelphia public school.

"It just wasn't a good experience," said Jones - too little consistency, no real connection with her son, who has a feeding tube. But when he moved to a school that had a full-time nurse, she said, things improved dramatically.

"The relationship between the nurse and my child is essential," said Jones, whose son is now a fourth grader at Lingelbach School in Germantown. "How could you think replacing school nurses could possibly help children?"

Jones stood with Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan and others Wednesday to protest the Philadelphia School District's move to possibly outsource school nurse services.

"This is not a job that you can simply hire a private health-care worker to do," Jordan told reporters at a news conference at the PFT's Center City headquarters.

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has said that the district has made no decision on whether it will outsource health services, but if it does, it would require that privatized workers have the same certifications required of school nurses. The privatization push would be made only if it will offer more and better health services to district students, he said.

Helen Gym, who by virtue of her May primary victory is a shoo-in for a Democratic at-large City Council seat, noted that schools were a top issue in recent races.

"If elections matter, then let this one be heard loud," Gym said. She railed against privatization, saying that parents support teachers, nurses, and their union.

Labor leader John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty echoed that sentiment in a statement, saying parents want certified, unionized nurses.

"The School District and the SRC had better be paying attention," Dougherty said.

The district's current straits, with many schools lacking full-time nurses, are unacceptable, Gym said.

"You don't schedule accidents," she said. "You don't schedule asthma attacks."

Parents United for Public Education, a group Gym cofounded, has filed dozens of complaints with the state over inadequate nursing services in city schools.

City Councilman Bobby Henon also stood with Jordan, Gym, and Jones on Wednesday.

"What I'm getting tired of hearing is outsourcing, privatization, and a race to the bottom," Henon said.

Council's stated opposition to the district's move to possibly outsource nurses is noteworthy. Hite asked Council for $103 million, and Council is pushing back hard, suggesting that $70 million to $85 million is enough for the school system.

Henon suggested that things would work out.

"We will do the responsible thing over at City Council for our schools," he said.

Responding to the PFT's no-privatization rallying cry, Hite said that he had to "see what is out there, what is available, are there opportunities to expand our current set of services so that we can provide more children with those set of services? This is not about trying to move jobs from one group to another."

Hite said he was aware that the move to explore outsourcing could hurt the district's chances in Council, but said it was his duty to try to find ways to get services to children.

"My responsibility is to educate children and provide the resources they need in schools," Hite said.

If the district is able to save money and get more and better medical services in front of the students, "it could be a model for how others think about this across the country," he said.

District officials have said it would cost $17 million to put full-time unionized nurses in every public school.

There are 183 nurses staffing city schools, down from 283 in 2011. Some could be added if more funds come through from City Hall and Harrisburg - principals have been given flexibility to use extra funds as they see fit, and some may use the money to hire nurses.