STATE — Funding for School Health Coordinator (SHC) positions in 31 districts across the state, including SAD 17, has been eliminated, effectively ending the program.
Budget cuts at Maine's Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have affected funding for the state's 27 Healthy Maine Partnerships (HMP), which support the SHCs through the Fund for Healthy Maine.
Revenues from a settlement between states and tobacco companies reached in 2000 fund HMP programs.
The budget cuts took over $2.7 million from the Fund – reducing it from $7,536,860 to $4,771,915.
"This was a legislatively mandated cut to the Fund for Healthy Maine," says John Martins, a DHHS spokesperson.
"That's where all this started in terms of making decisions in that particular fund in what we would continue to cover and what we wouldn't cover."
The coordinated school health program, which cost around $2.1 million, offered direct support for school districts to improve policies and programs that affected student health in 31 school districts across the state.
Christine Zukas, the Deputy Director of Maine Center for Disease Control (MECDC), the DHHS department through which HMPs are funded, says that the decision to eliminate funding for SHCs was made because the program could not be replicated statewide.
"There just isn't funding enough to provide one school-based health coordinator per district," she says.
According to Zukas, $2.1 million will be spread to HMPs across the state.
"We thought ... if we were to take that funding, what could we do to provide a service to schools statewide and not ... just the 31 districts," she says.
HMPs will be expected to work with the schools at the policy level to improve health.
The new budget also alters the statewide HMP structure.
Instead of individual contracts with DHHS, there will now be nine "lead HMPs" – one for each state health district – that subcontract to 18 "supporting HMPs."
Lead HMPs will receive $281,000 while supporting HMPs will receive $120,000.
River Valley Healthy Communities Coalition, in Rumford, will become the lead HMP in the Western District.
According to the MECDC, the changes will reduce administrative overhead and duplication of work.
Ken Morse, the director of Healthy Oxford Hills (HOH), says that the elimination of SHCs came as a surprise.
Morse expected cuts, but he did not think SHCs to be completely eliminated. Nor does he completely understand the reason for what he calls a "drastic" cut, he says.
"It doesn't make any sense," he says.
Morse is also skeptical that HMPs will make as much of an impact in schools through policy consultation.
"Policy work by itself doesn't mean much," he says.
"If you put in a policy that says the school food service has to purchase 40-percent local, that's fine, but without somebody to find the farmers, build relationships, help to iron out all the details of those exchanges, it's not going to happen."
Morse says he is unsure what HOH will be required to do because it has not yet received its contract.
SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts says the district budgeted for a worst-case scenario, which allows the current SHC, Pat Carson, to remain in the district, although in a new position.
Carson will continue to work on nutrition and physical education – half of his position will be funded with the school's food services budget and the other half with the PEP grant.
"He plays an incredibly important role within the district," Colpitts says. "We'd hate to lose his expertise."
Other districts have not been as lucky.
RSU 10 Superintendent Tom Ward says that the district's health coordinator position will be eliminated.
Although Ward says he knew cuts were coming, the decision to eliminate the position came entirely "out of the blue."
"The worst-case scenario, we thought, was reducing it [the funding] by two-thirds," he says.
Ward says that losing the SHC, who has helped RSU 10 get multiple grants and purchase new health equipment, will be a blow to the district.
He hopes that legislators will push to restore funding for health coordinators.
"Because of the success of the program over the years, I think there's going to be quite a bit of a fallout," he predicts.
Some, including state legislators and HMP administrators, have suggested that the HMP cuts were politically motivated, but Zukas denies the allegations.
"We've got no direction from anyone in the administration to cut this program," she says.
"It was really looking at what's the best use of the funding, based on these cuts ... it was not an easy decision."