Union cries foul at Philly School District’s plans to outsource substitute teachers, medical care

 From left, Ron Whitehorne of PCAPS, PFT president Jerry Jordan, Lingelbach Elementary parent Sabrina Jones and City Council candidate Helen Gym appear at a press conference about outsourcing. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

From left, Ron Whitehorne of PCAPS, PFT president Jerry Jordan, Lingelbach Elementary parent Sabrina Jones and City Council candidate Helen Gym appear at a press conference about outsourcing. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

The mother of a fourth-grader with medical needs at Lingelbach Elementary school in Philadelphia says private agency nurses did not work for her son.

“They weren’t invested in my child, they didn’t know the signs that I expected them to know, when he was in distress,” said Sabrina Jones. Her biggest concerns were “the level of care and the inconsistency” of having different nurses on different days.

Put off by Philadelphia School District-assigned private nurses, Jones sought out a school with a full-time nurse and ended up at Lingelbach Elementary in Northwest Philadelphia. Her son, who can’t eat without assistance, has found a “safe haven” with that school’s nurse, she said.

“Nurses, they’re nurturers,” said Jones. “They’re not just there for the health issue.”

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Jones shared her experiences at a press conference held by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which represents school nurses, criticizing recent requests for proposals from the district for outside help in substitute teacher staffing and providing medical care in schools. Now, the district fills just 64 percent of available substitute jobs.

At the press conference, PFT president Jerry Jordan called into question the qualifications of outside medical staff who could replace nurses. “This is not a job you can simply hire a private health care worker to do at the same level of expertise,” he said.

Democratic City Council candidate Helen Gym, Councilman Bobby Henon and Ron Whitehorne of the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools also appeared at the news conference. 

“You can’t schedule an accident,” said Gym, who said she’d like to see a full-time nurse in every school. The request for proposals, she said, show the district has the wrong priorities, spending money on untried academic programs instead of core staff.

Of a recent contract for blended learning program, Gym said, “Do we really need that while we cry poverty on an inability to provide full-time nurses in school?”

Jordan and Gym also questioned why the district didn’t seek alternative sourcing for substitute positions, such as tapping retired teachers, as well as its current substitute staffing practices, which include leaning on substitutes during the first few months of the school year before all full-time teachers have been assigned classrooms.

President of the Philadelphia Council of the AFL-CIO Patrick Elding and powerful electricians union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty sent letters supporting the PFT’s position.

In response to the union’s fears about outsourcing, district superintendent William Hite said, “This is not about trying to move jobs from one group to another.”

Instead, Hite said, the district is exploring it options, to “just ask the question, ‘What is out there?'”

The RFP for medical services allows for many different kinds of proposals, from a school-based health center to an outside vendor providing health care staff for the district.

It also specifies that services providers must not “increase current district net costs” for health services, which total $23.7 million annually. That pays for 183 nurses spread over 218 district schools and 95 private and parochial schools, as well as for private nurses for students with the most severe medical needs.

By the district’s count, it would cost $17 million to have a nurse in every school. Gym said it would only take $5 million to get enough nurses to meet the federally recommended ratio of one nurse for every 750 students.

One way to get more services without increasing costs, said district spokesman Fernando Gallard, would be contracting with a company that is able to get federal reimbursements for school-based medical services.

But he said the district doesn’t know what proposals it will have to consider yet. Applications for medical services RFP were due Wednesday, and the district will consider them in a public process,  said Gallard.

As for the substitute teacher outsourcing, the School Reform Commission is scheduled to consider a resolution for a two-year, $34 million contract with Source4Teachers, a New Jersey substitute staffing service, next week.

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