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May 31, 2013

Nursing program’s fate nears

NEW CASTLE — The fate of the practical nursing program at the Lawrence County Career and Technical Center could be sealed next week.

The vo-tech school’s joint operating committee will have a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. On the agenda is how its 2013-14 budget will get passed before the June 28 deadline, and what the school will do about the adult practical nursing program’s growing debt.

If the eight member school districts reject the center’s budget altogether, it will have to close its doors July 1.

The New Castle school board decided at its budget workshop last week that it won’t approve the vo-tech spending plan unless the nursing program is discontinued.

Six of the eight districts must approve the budget, but that has been bogged down by questions surrounding the nursing program’s debt to the school, which has grown to $518,000 dollars. As a result, the career and technical center has been using general operating funds paid by member school district to offset its deficits.

The center owes six districts a total of $450,573 in repayment for the differences in beginning-of-year enrollment projections versus actual enrollment figures for 2010-11 school year. That money has gone help offset the nursing program’s costs.

Enrollment figure differences for the 2011-12 school year have not yet been made public, Chastity Williams, the center’s assistant business manager, said Thursday. That information would not be available until the vo-tech board’s June 20 meeting, she added.

David DiGiammarino, a member of the vo-tech operating committee, last week told the New Castle board, where he is president, that “in reality, we can be looking at an $800,000 deficit if the program doesn’t make money. That deficit is going to continually grow.”

If the nursing program ends, the center might have to pay instructors who have contracts through next year, he told the board, and the districts that are owed money will have to write off the center’s debt to them. New Castle’s write-off would be about $180,000.

A problem the nursing program has encountered in recent years — which has created its budget woes — is a drop in student enrollment and retention.

Tommelleo confirmed the number of students in this year’s program was not enough to cover expenses, because of drop-outs.

DiGiammarino said he learned recently students entering the practical nursing program do not pay any money up front.

When their student aid is paid, it goes to the school, but if the student drops out, the program is out the money, DiGiammarino explained. “The students go to school with zero risk out of pocket.”

“That’s just been our policy,” career and technical center director Dr. Andrew Tommelleo said Thursday. “A lot of students get their financial aid and don’t have money to pay up front.”

He deferred to Betty Tillia, the nursing program’s director, for further explanation, but multiple attempts to reach her Thursday were unsuccessful.

The Union school board had approved the vo-tech budget two months ago on a 5-4 vote. Then, during a special meeting earlier this month, its members rescinded that and voted down the budget 8-0. The Shenango school board also rejected the budget.

Only Laurel and Neshannock school boards have approved the spending plan.

New Castle, Mohawk, Wilmington and Ellwood City have put their decisions on hold until their June meetings.

DiGiammarino said the center’s administration has proposed eliminating two nursing program positions — a part-time clerical job and an instructor position — but the latter would have to wait until June 2014 because of a contract.

Tommelleo said the center is looking into the legalities of whether it would have to pay the nursing program instructors through 2014 if the program ends.

“I hate to say this, but it’s like a losing bet going forward,” DiGiammarino said, adding, “I don’t think anyone wants to see (the vo-tech school) close, even temporarily. The drag on it is the practical nursing program. More than likely it’s not going to break even in the next year, either, and the deficit is going to grow.”

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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