Times Record: Will we help our sick kids? (June 7, 2013)

There’s a bumper sticker that says, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” We would add, “If you think health care is expensive, try illness.”

Our schools exist at the intersection of these two phenomena. Ask a teacher, principal or school nurse whether it’s easier to educate a student who is well-fed, mentally sound and practicing healthful behaviors, and the answer is unanimous. As poverty stubbornly increases, more and more of our children are getting primary health care services at school. Whether this is optimal or not can be argued. Either way, it’s a fact that needs to be addressed.

An administrator at one of our local school districts recently told us of a more than 100 percent increase in the number of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, a 50 percent increase in mental health visits, and a record high of 72 homeless students this past school year.

The need is pressing. So when the state raided $20 million in Tobacco Settlement funds to help fill a deficit in 2012, that left some 30 school districts — including Regional School Unit 1 and School Administrative District 75 — reeling to find a way to fund their already- budgeted school health coordinator positions.

SAD 75’s coordinator, Mary Booth, was recognized by the American School Health Association as the national School Health Coordinator of the Year the same week the funding for her position was eliminated by the state.

These positions exist as partners with their local Healthy Maine Partnerships to help reduce tobacco use, substance abuse and bullying; promote daily physical activity, healthy vending machine contents and staff health; and collect health data that drive future cost-saving prevention efforts.

RSU 1 lost its coordinator. SAD 75 was able to find some local funds, complemented by one-time funding from several local organizations, to extend Booth’s contract to the end of the current school year. That ends this week.

As the Appropriations Committee considers ways to solve its latest budget impasse today, it is critical that the health of Maine children remains a top consideration.

By investing in school health coordinators, Maine can prevent disease, improve student performance and ensure a healthy, competent work force down the road. For every $1 invested in preventing disease, $7.50 is saved, so this seems a worthy payment.

Where to find the money?

Start by restoring the $20 million in cuts to the Fund for a Healthy Maine, including school health coordinators (this is not part of the General Fund and is intended for prevention of disease). Then use part of the $47 million from a new cigarette tax already being debated to restore the Fund for a Healthy Maine, while helping reduce adolescent tobacco use.

This isn’t mindless spending on pet programs. This is proven preventive health programs and care for kids, most of whom are at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic scale and have no alternatives.

Isn’t spending $1 to save $7.50 down the road while improving livelihoods and offering a hand up to Maine’s future workers a good deal?

How the Legislature answers that question today will say much about the wellness of our society.

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