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SPS superintendent proposes adding nurses to pot earmarks

Debbie Long, a Spokane Public Schools nurse who floats to various schools, listens to the breathing of Raylin Talarico, 11, at Garfield Elementary on Wednesday. (Jesse Tinsley)
Debbie Long, a Spokane Public Schools nurse who floats to various schools, listens to the breathing of Raylin Talarico, 11, at Garfield Elementary on Wednesday. (Jesse Tinsley)

Evaluate role, allocate funds for staffing, Redinger says

Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent thinks more school nurses would be a smart investment for the money the state stands to make on marijuana growing, processing and sales.

Shelley Redinger proposed the idea during a recent visit to Olympia and got a good reception, she said. Redinger is asking the Washington Legislature to pay for a review of the role of school nurses and suggest funding and staffing levels in the state’s K-12 schools.

Even though Redinger believes the nurse idea has traction, it will be up against a number of other proposals for a piece of the pot pie.

Initiative 502, which created legal pot sales in Washington, already earmarks some of the revenue. Off the top is $1.5 million for state agencies to monitor and study legalized marijuana. After that, 30 percent is designated to public education about the drug’s dangers, a marijuana hotline, and substance-abuse prevention and treatment.

Another 50 percent is earmarked for a health care trust fund, but that money could be freed up due to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

The pot revenue projection for the next three years is a little more than $20 million each year. “But this is all an assumption,” said Rep. Kevin Parker, a Spokane Republican. “This is one of the Legislature’s bad habits, counting money before it has come in.”

Most suggestions for spending the leftover marijuana revenue involve law enforcement or elementary education.

Two bills requesting pot funds are House Bill 2732, suggesting $100 million annually for fighting gang activity, and House Bill 2772, which recommends $25 million per year for fire, police, ferries and bridges.

“Officers on the streets will have a lot more enforcement issues to deal with,” Parker said, such as the black market and smaller offenses that come along with legalizing marijuana: smoking in public or growing more than allowed.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, a Spokane Democrat, will request money to study Redinger’s proposal.

“I’m here, and I’m going to push for that,” Riccelli said. But “money is tight. With the pressure of the Supreme Court ruling (to fund basic education), we have to be careful with every dollar we spend.”

Still, lawmakers and the governor are focused on how to improve the general health of young learners, so Riccelli thinks the proposal could get some support.

Spokane Public Schools has 29 nurses and needs 20 more to have one in every school.

The estimated cost would be $1 million annually for the state’s second-largest school district.

“If we are going to look at K-12, we’d be wise to look at nurses,” Riccelli said. “Washington is behind staffing in public schools. With a lack of nurses in the schools, whenever there is an asthma attack we have to call 911.”

The study would look, in part, at the savings of reducing ambulance trips to schools.

Sue Perkins, who specializes in child and family health at the Washington State University College of Nursing, thinks more nurses in schools would be a tremendous benefit to students.

“I think people just think of a school nurse who sits in an office and puts on Band-Aids, but it’s so much more than that,” Perkins said. “They are in charge of children’s health. For the most part, school nurses are the only medical professional in an educational setting.”

Washington has room for improvement in its nurse-to-student ratio. The state is ranked 43rd in the nation with one nurse per 2,031 students, worse than Idaho.

The need is vital, said Perkins, who spent 26 years as a school nurse in the West Valley School District. School nurses are seeing many more medically fragile students and more students with mental health issues.

“School nurses are specially trained to make sure kids are healthy so they are learning,” Perkins said. “Nurses are there for the emergency stuff, but more importantly they are there to prevent things from happening in the first place.”

Staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this story.