Loss of full-time nurse at St. Joseph School riles school board member

New London — A school board member and candidate in the local state representative race joined Tuesday in condemning a school board decision that barred additional spending to support a full-time school nurse at St. Joseph School, a private Catholic school in New London.

School board member Jason Catala and Andrew Lockwood, a Republican seeking the 39th District state House seat, called a recent school board vote unfair considering state law calls for “the same” services among all schools in a district. The two joined in a news conference outside the school district's administration building.  

Catala, who has a daughter who attends St. Joseph, said the estimated $28,000 needed from the budget to fund the position full-time could be found somewhere in the district’s $64 million budget. He has been joined by several St. Joseph parents and others in the community over the last several months calling for reinstatement of a full-time nurse.

The initial cut in hours for the school nurse at St. Joseph came as the district unexpectedly was called on this year to provide nursing services at The Williams School, a private sixth-grade through 12th-grade school in New London. The school district decided to split a nurse’s time between the two schools — providing about 24 hours a week at St. Joseph.

Citing fiscal constraints, the Board of Education last week voted 6-1 against reinstating the full-time nurse. Catala voted in favor.

School board Chairwoman Margaret Mary “Peg” Curtin said schools in the district, each with their own full-time nurse, have two and three times the number of students of St. Joseph, which has 140 total students. She said the split was an equitable one based on student population at St. Joseph.

Curtin said that in a tough budget year, the extra $28,000 was likely to lead to cuts elsewhere. Additionally, Curtin said the school board obtained a legal opinion that it is in compliance with state law.

Lockwood on Tuesday argued that the board was not following the letter of the law and the school board had “no right to go in and override" the legislature's opinion. Lockwood also criticized the school district for a general lack of transparency in its budget.

The state statute in part reads: “Each town or regional school district which provides health services for children attending its public schools in any grade, from kindergarten to twelve, inclusive, shall provide the same health services for children in such grades attending private nonprofit schools...”

There are obvious differences of opinion on what the statute means.

“We’ve been advised by the state that the mandate says the school should be receiving the same services of the public schools,” said St. Joseph Principal Marianne Cote. “We expect we should be having full-time nursing services at our school.” She said she hoped the issue would be resolved “peacefully and New London will do the right thing.”

Catala called on the school board to revisit its decision. Lockwood said parents of St. Joseph students had a right to complain to the state Department of Education and file suit, if needed.

School Superintendent Manuel Rivera said the “same health services” referenced in the statute does not mean equal in terms of allocation of resources. He said the move to split services was necessitated not only by the call for services at Williams but a lean budget passed by the city and the addition of more than 200 students into the system this year.

When the Williams School requested nursing services — which the district must provide by law — the decision was made to share services as had been done when St. Mary’s School was still open. St. Mary and St. Joseph had shared a nurse from the district before St. Mary closed in 2013. The district provides limited nursing services at Solomon Schechter Academy, a kindergarten through sixth-grade school in New London, but not an on-site nurse.  

Rivera said he tried to find a way to restore the funds for the full-time position, but the additional revenue never materialized.

“I’m in a situation now where, when people make budget requests, I say, ‘No, we don’t have the resources.’ It’s a decision I made and one that I’m not going to change,” Rivera said. “It’s my hope people would understand this. If we had funding, it would be a different story, but we are in a very difficult financial situation.”

The nursing services provided to private schools partially are reimbursed by the state based on a formula. Reimbursement rates for Williams and St. Joseph were not immediately available from the district.

Asked to weigh in on the issue, Green Party candidate for the 39th District state House seat Ronna Stuller, a former New London school board member, sided with the school district.

“I think it’s almost an artificial issue,” Stuller said. “The nurse will be (at St. Joseph) every day ... at predictable hours. A full-time nurse for somewhere around 130 students I think is unreasonable. I don’t think we should be providing private schools more than we are providing our public schools.”

Chris Soto, the Democratic candidate in the 39th District, said Lockwood is meddling in local issues and, in the St. Joseph case, an issue the school board is elected and tasked to decide on its own.

“Why isn’t he talking about state issues?” Soto said in reference to Lockwood.

g.smith@theday.com

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