School nurse pay sparks heated debate
By: Mary Openshaw
Source: Loudon County News-Herald
A $13,000 pay cut for the wife of a board of education member employed as school nurse sparked heated debate last week.

The Loudon County School Board Budget Committee’s recommendation to implement a pay scale for all school nurses in the upcoming school year passed at last Thursday’s school board meeting in spite of protest from board member Freddie Gene Walker.

Walker confronted the board about a $13,000 salary cut coming to his wife, Patrina Walker, the school nurse at Highland Park Elementary, under the new schedule.

"When you hired her eight years ago, she told you the salary she needed to leave her job at the nursing home…With this pay cut, she’ll be making under what you hired her at," Walker said.

"The message this sends to other employees is that they have no job security. Is that how you want to treat your employees?" he continued.

Walker noted his wife would be the first school district employee ever to receive a pay cut.

Board member Tim Wampler said that every year, the board cancels employee contracts.

"Wouldn’t you say that going from $20,000 to nothing is a pay cut?" Wampler asked. Wampler said the board is trying to equalize pay rates through the pay schedule.

The board contended that when Walker’s wife was hired, she was serving as a nurse at six area schools, and is now working only at one. Since her duties have been reduced, the school board decided her salary should be reduced also.

Walker said his wife is still working eight hours a day, still doing the same job, and in fact is giving the district two hour hours of service that used to be taken up by travel time between the schools.

"As many of you may know, I am having cancer surgery next week. I don’t want anyone on this board sending me flowers or fruit. You have made your feelings about me and my family clear here tonight," Walker said.

Loudon County Director of Schools Edward Headlee explained the salary schedule has been in the works for a couple of years.

"It came about because we were getting kids who were diabetic and were in kindergarten or first grade and couldn’t self-administer their medication," he said. "We started placing LPNs in schools at a dollar an hour more than we were paying educational assistants. So they adopted a schedule for next year that will be $2.85 an hour more than educational assistants. They said that all nurses with the same credentials doing the same job would be on that schedule."

The board’s position is that Patrina Walker has the same credentials as the other nurses, and would be at the top of the pay scale because of her years of service.

Initially when the school nurse program started, Headlee said the state sent enough for half a position the first year. The school system employed one RN half time. The next year, the state sent additional money. At that point, Patrina Walker was employed half-time with the school system, and still worked half-time at her job in a nursing home. The third year, the school system received additional money. The RN still didn’t want to work full-time, so Patrina Walker was hired full-time.

"At that point, her salary was set," Headlee said. "At the time, we had 10 facilities. The RN took three schools. Mrs. Walker took six, and there was an RN for the tech center," Headlee continued. Later, Mrs. Walker was placed working at only one school, Highland Park Elementary."

Headlee said he doesn’t believe the budget committee meant to leave Walker out of their discussion about the nurses’ pay schedule. "I don’t think there was any design to it, I think it was just part of the process that they were going through. I’ll agree it looks bad, but I don’t think that was the intent. The committee was also looking at a salary schedule for the technology staff," Headlee said.

Walker said he feels the pay cut is the board’s way of getting back at him for an incident last year when he was chairman. "They gave the superintendent a $5,000 raise and the budget director a $7,000 raise, and they only gave some of the teachers a $350 raise. I pitched a fit about it, and I told the superintendent I was going to pitch a fit about it. I actually walked out of the meeting as chairman. Right after that, at the next meeting, something was brought up about how much my wife was making," Walker said. "They said I embarrassed the board, but they embarrassed themselves. They embarrassed themselves at this month’s meeting, too," he continued.

The next year, his wife was transferred to two schools, according to Walker. The board said because of the money she was making, she should be working at more than one school. Then they transferred her back to just working at Highland Park, after three other nurses quit, he noted.

"They wrote her a letter telling her they were going to cut her pay because she was only working at one school, but she had a contract," Walker said. "I told Edward [Headlee] I was going to sue him if they tried to cut her pay. And they sent a letter and apologized, but said her salary was going to be that way this [coming] year.

"Tim Wampler, who’s vice-chairman and Paul Rogers met with me and Edward and tried to talk this thing out. We talked it out and at that point, they said they would review it. Patrina asked, ‘How will I know what happens?’ and Tim Wampler said, ‘Well, Freddie will know.’ So I’ve been going to the budget committee meetings, because I knew it was going to come up.

"But I couldn’t go to the last one, on April 5, and they knew that. So that’s when they brought it up. If I hadn’t called a couple of the members on the budget committee, I would never have known it had come up. If you looked at the way they wrote it up, it says, ‘put all nurses on a salary.’ Well, they were already on an aide’s salary. They hired them as aides. They paid nurses aides’ pay. They’re getting nurses for nothing really, and I hate that the nurses are taking that little pay, but that was their choice.

"When Patrina took her job eight years ago, she told them what she’d have to have to leave her job at the nursing home, and that’s what they paid her and she’s been getting raises ever since. Now they’re basically just taking it away from her. They’re saying her duties have changed and that’s bull, it all goes back to last year. It can be proven in court, it’s all vindictive; they’re getting back at me," Walker said.

"Patrina is the only one taking a pay cut. That’s why I made the comment as I left, that if [the school board is] hurting that much for money, don’t send me flowers or fruit, just keep it," he continued.

"I asked Edward [Headlee] if ever in the 30 plus years he’d been with the school system, if he knew of anyone else who’d had to take a pay cut. He said there was one that had been frozen. They could have probably frozen Patrina’s, and it would have been no problem, but cutting it $13,000? How are you going to make up for something like that? That also affects your retirement, and it affects a lot of things. They don’t really care, they’re just going to get even with me," Walker said. "I hate to cause a controversy, I thought we’d got this all settled, but they brought it back up. They’re getting back at me. They’re not men enough to come after me, they’ve got to come after my wife," Walker said.

"If the board can get it into the budget for next year, we want an additional nurse position for Loudon High School," Headlee said. Currently the nurse there is also teaching full-time, and if an emergency comes up while she’s in class, she has to leave her class unsupervised.