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The Denver Public School District can no longer afford to provide its current level of health and social services to students and is looking to outside agencies for help. But the possibility that DPS might contract out nursing, psychology and social services has some employees worried about losing their jobs and others concerned about the quality of care that students will receive.
The district has appointed three task forces to examine each of the service areas. But some task force members fear their recommendations will be ignored, and others despair that some of the organizations represented--most notably the Denver Health and Hospital Authority--stand to gain from partnerships with the district.
"Even though I'm a health-care provider on the nursing task force, I have very little input, and that's what's alarming," says Deanna Hanna, a school nurse at both Morey Middle and Cory Elementary schools, as well as the nurse representative for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
While Hanna recognizes that DPS probably needs to change its policies to meet the growing demand for the services, she is concerned about the way services will be managed if they're contracted out. "When you're employed by the district, as we are, all children are served. As an employee of the district, I am part of the educational team, and I am accountable to the school principal. But if I were in a contract service, I'd be beholden to whoever is running it. I'd have to serve a lot more schools, and I wouldn't be able to serve all kids," she says.
Richard Rosenow, a social worker at Horace Mann Middle School and the union representative for social workers, says, "If they're talking about getting people from other agencies to help us do our job so we can do less clerical work, we'd welcome that with open arms. But that's not the message were getting. We're getting the message that they're trying to phase us out entirely so they don't have to pay our salaries and benefits."
DPS currently employs 51 psychologists, 60 social workers and 51 nurses at an annual cost of $6.9 million--a small fraction of the district's $392 million budget.
Rosenow, who has been a DPS social worker for 26 years, says social workers from outside agencies would simply fill the role of caseworkers by coming into a school, working with a student and then leaving. "We do much, much more. We provide daily, ongoing support services for kids and their families. Often, kids will come in to see us a few times a day. You're not going to have a caseworker waiting to provide services to them," he says.
DPS officials gave the social work task force a mission statement that indicates the district already knows what it wants, adds Phil Hernandez, the Denver Department of Health and Human Services manager and a task force member. "We're supposed to deliver the rationale for reducing the budget, I guess."
The mission statement reads, in part, "The district cannot maintain the comprehensiveness [sic] level of health and welfare services that it has taken on...A collaborative effort with various care providers needs to be initiated. By partnering with city departments and community-based agencies there can be a higher level of impact on services to children and families. This partnership can be more cost effective, and perhaps, considerably reduce the district's budget for this kind of expenditure."
Despite the ominous tone of the statement, school officials say employees' fears are unfounded and that DPS is simply trying to provide better medical and mental health care to students--without eliminating jobs.
"Last spring, when the school board went through the budget cycle, we faced a significant budget deficit of about $15 million," says Denver Board of Education member Elaine Gantz Berman, who sits on the nursing and psychology task forces. "At the time, there were proposed cuts for social workers. The board asked the district staff to work with the appropriate agencies in the community to look at a number of different services--social workers, psychologists and nurses--and to see what needs kids have for those services, what services they are currently providing, and what the most efficient ways there are of meeting those needs." She adds that it's far too early to know if privatization will even be considered.
The task forces are supposed to deliver their recommendations to the school board later this month or in early May--just in time for the coming school year's budget deliberations. Hanna says one of the main proponents of contracting out services is nursing task force co-chairman Paul Melinkovich, who also represents one of the probable bidders, the Denver Health and Hospital Authority, a nonprofit public health agency for low-income residents.
"Now that schools have Medicaid reimbursement, kids have dollar signs on them," Hanna says, referring to a bill passed by the state legislature in 1997 allowing school districts to track students who are eligible for Medicaid coverage and receive matching funds from the federal government. DPS will collect an additional $500,000 this year as a result.
"The Denver Health and Hospital Authority has lost a lot of Medicaid patients because patients have more choices than they used to and can go to other agencies for care," notes Hanna, who has been a school nurse in DPS for 31 years. "There is a captive audience of Medicaid patients in the schools, and Denver Health wants to increase their client list."