News & Events

West Springfield School Nurses File for Mediation As Contract Talks Stall Over Nurses Call for Pay Parity With Teachers

RNs Are Grossly Underpaid Compared to Teachers and Other Professionals

West Springfield, Mass. — The West Springfield school nurses, after just 10 negotiating sessions, have been forced to file for mediation with the State Board of Conciliation and Arbitration as the nurses and administration have been unable to come to terms on a new contract that would bring the nurses up to parity with teachers and other professionals in the school system. Under the school system’s last proposal, the nurses would still be paid 30 percent less than teachers and other professionals in the school system (such as librarians and adjustment counselors).

“We feel we have a strong case to make in mediation given the vital role of school nurses in our school system, and in view of the fact that school nurses have the exact same level of education and licensure requirements as other professionals in the system, yet are not paid as professionals,” said Gayle Hylen, RN, co-chair of the nurses’ local bargaining unit and a nurse at the West Springfield Middle School. “The 10 school nurses are responsible for providing full nursing coverage to eight school buildings, as well as the early childhood center, housing a total population of more than 4,000 students who depend on the professional health services we deliver to be safe, stay well and be prepared to learn.”

The nurses, who opted for representation by the Massachusetts Nurses Association in July of 2005, have been in negotiations for their new contract with the school system since October 2005. To date, only 10 sessions have been held. The nurses filed for mediation at the end of February, after talks stalled suddenly over the issue of salary, specifically after the the school system’s negotiating team, abruptly presented what was characterized as the “last best” salary offer, which would leave the nurses far below their goal of pay parity with the teachers and other professionals. It was the only salary offer they ever made.

“We found the sudden hardening of the school committee’s position to be both surprising and discouraging, given that we had just held a number of productive sessions where we were given the opportunity to present our case for professional parity, and that case had been well received by our counterparts across the table,” Hylen explained. “They acknowledged our professional status and they appeared to recognize the vital role we play in keeping children safe, healthy and ready to learn. And they shared a proposal with us that stated in black and white that the ‘mayor has indicated a willingness to begin to move toward parity for the nurses.’ They even acknowledged that the cost of bringing us up to parity wasn’t significant given the small number of nurses involved in comparison with the size of the budget.”

In fact the total cost of bringing the nurses up to professional parity is less than one-third of one percent of the school budget.

The Nurses’ Case for Parity
According to Hylen, today’s school nurses are highly-trained professionals who care for a population of students with varied and complex health needs. In fact, the professional requirements to be a school nurse are higher than those required of nurses in any other setting, including hospitals. These skills include first aid and emergency care; psychiatric nursing; chronic-disease management; triage nursing; management of numerous medications; counseling; and medical device management. In addition, the Department of Education requires the exact same licensure requirements for both school nurses and teachers.

According to the State Department of Public Health, at least one in 12 Massachusetts students is actively limited or suffering from fair or poor health. In West Springfield one in seven children (600 out of 4,000 students) have special health care needs that require the care and monitoring of the 10 professional school nurses. Children not only have asthma, attention deficit disorder, migraine headaches, epilepsy, heart conditions, diabetes, life threatening allergies, arthritis, hemophilia and other chronic illnesses, but students are also coming to school needing colostomy care, catheterization, intravenous medications, naso-gastric feeding and other complex procedures. In West Springfield, there are more than 600 students with special health care needs.

“We administer and monitor a host of medications to students every day, and we also provide health education to students to try and teach them healthy lifestyles, as well as how to manage their illnesses. And of course, the school nurse is on-hand to provide acute and episodic emergency care should your child suffer a serious injury or unexpected illness on school grounds.”

For example, last year West Springfield school nurses averaged more than 300 office visits per day and administered an average of 125 medications per day.

A recent front-page story in the USA Today on school nursing highlighted the ultimate value of school nurses and the argument for professional parity with teachers. It reported that if a teacher makes a mistake or an error in their lessons, it can “have a negative impact on the child’s future.” However, if a nurse makes a mistake or error in judgment, “maybe a child doesn’t have a future.”

Nurses Treated Like Second Class Citizens by School System
According to the nurses as their job has become increasingly complex and more demanding, the school system has failed to provide a salary scale commensurate with their professional level and their contributions to the school system. Bachelor’s-prepared school nurses at West Springfield have between 22 and 37 years experience as registered nurses and make just over $38,000 per year; while teachers, with comparable education and experience, make $50,000 plus per year.

More than 82 school systems in the state offer some form of pay equity, including 21 school systems in Western Massachusetts. This includes Westfield and Ludlow, two systems that have recently recruited away members of the West Springfield school nurse staff.

One of those nurses was Wendy Gage, a talented and experienced school nurse who had worked at the West Springfield Elementary and High Schools for more than seven years.

“You can only be disrespected for so long before you make the decision to go where your professional skills and experience are valued and where you are treated with fairness and respect,” Gage said.

In addition to taking their case to mediation, the nurses also plan to begin reaching out to the public, particularly parents of the West Springfield school system.

“Parents need to know that if we can’t recruit and retain quality school nurses to take care of their children, it is their children who will be placed in jeopardy,” Hylen concluded.