The Board of Education is set to vote Wednesday on a four-year, $30 million contract that would hire a private company to recruit, train and schedule school nurses in CPS.
RCM Technologies, based in Pennsauken, N.J. would be paid $7.5 million a year through June 2019, with options to renew the contract for two more years.
The contract would replace a two-year agreement in place now with three other vendors that was supposed to last through June 2016, according to Bill McCaffrey, a CPS spokesman.*
RCM Technologies will provide about 170 nurses, the same number CPS has now through private companies. That’s in addition to the 280 nurses employed by the district.
In its Nov. 21 request-for-proposals, the district said it was seeking a new contract to reduce nursing and management costs and to eliminate “inefficiencies” in clerical work and technology, but it’s unclear how much money – if any – the contract saves. (The district has contracted out some nursing services since around the early 1990s.)
McCaffrey said the new contract would allow the district to “build a more cost-effective and demand-driven model” for hiring nurses.
No existing school staff would be fired because of the contract. McCaffrey said the contract would “strengthen the existing pipeline of qualified nurses” and help fill short-term needs.
RCM Technologies also is up for part of a separate, two-year $10 million contract, shared among three companies, to provide additional “related service providers” to the district.
Such providers usually include speech therapists, occupational and physical therapists and others who help students with medical needs. If approved, RCM Technologies would manage the scheduling of all related service providers in the district, as well as help recruit and hire them.
Critics of the proposed nurse-staffing contract, including the Chicago Teachers Union and some active and retired school nurses, say the district should invest instead in hiring more permanent school nurses, who are included under the CTU’s labor contract. These nurses bring stability to a school and are more familiar with the needs of students, parents and principals.
“We definitely question why we can be spending $30 million to do this, and we can’t figure out how to hire staff permanently,” says Sarah Hainds, a CTU researcher. “This totally reeks of eliminating the union as a central goal.”
CPS currently doesn’t use certified school nurses who are under a private contract. Under the new contract, RCM Technologies would help recruit and hire these certified nurses, who hold educator licenses and are certified to assess special education students. According to Hainds’ data, there were 17 such vacancies in the district as of late March.
On Thursday, a CPS spokeswoman said while the request-for-proposals said a vendor could provide certified school nurses, the district did not intend to contract out those positions.
Hainds’ staffing records also show that the number of certified school nurses employed by the district has fallen in recent years, from about 200 during the 2009-2010 school year to about 160 this year. The district said those openings are hard to fill due to a national shortage of certified school nurses.
CPS has said staffing agencies are needed because the demand for nurses increases over the school year as students with special needs are given placements. As of the 2013-14 school year, nearly 14,000 students required direct nursing services, the district said.
Helen Ramirez-Odell, who worked as a CPS nurse for 44 years before retiring in 2011, says she and other nurses support using private-contract nurses for children with profound disabilities who require one-on-one care. But it’s better for most children, she said, if the school nurse is a district employee who earns benefits and a pension and who won’t jump ship at the first offer of a better job.
“A nurse who works for a private agency will be loyal to that agency,” she says.
CPS administration has come under fire for hiring private companies to take over district work in recent months, most notably custodial services.
Principals have complained their schools haven’t been cleaned well enough since private companies took over the work and a recent WBEZ report found that the district’s contract with one of those companies was $22 million over budget this year.
Last year, the district approved a two-year $21 million contract with three companies to provide additional nurses.
Cindy Weiner, the franchise president of ATC Healthcare Services in Palos Heights said the CPS procurement office reached out to her on June 17 and said her nurse-staffing contract would be “phased out” in July.
Weiner questioned how a new company would be able to find enough nurses by the start of the school year. Her company has held a district contract for nine years, she said.
“It’s taken many years to perfect the system,” she says. “We spend a lot of money training our nurses to be in the CPS system.”
A representative from Favorite Healthcare Staffing, a second company that provides CPS with nurses, says she hadn’t heard the district would cancel the company’s contract.
A representative for RCM Technologies declined to comment until the board votes on the contract, but in a mid-May press release the company’s chief financial officer hinted at the CPS contract. He said RCM Technologies would be recommended to serve as the “exclusive vendor for school nursing services” in a major U.S. city for the next six years.
RCM Technologies has held other education contracts, including one to provide nursing services to the Hawaii Department of Education, which serves about 181,000 students across the state’s 289 schools.
If approved, RCM Technologies would be responsible for running a call center, scheduling all CPS and agency nurses – including those at charter schools – and helping the district determine its nurse-staffing needs. The company also would determine professional development needs for nurses, create a comprehensive training program and track its progress.
Ramirez-Odell says that approach to staff development could be a problem. During her time in the district, she and other nurses gave suggestions for training programs and helped plan them.
“We did have a big say in what we wanted to learn more about,” she says.
*This story was updated Wednesday to reflect a response from CPS and on Thursday to reflect a clarification about the contracting of certified school nurses.
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