New Castle News

March 30, 2013

Financial struggle

Career and technical center gives practical nursing program deadline to start generating funds

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Betty Tillia has nurtured the practical nursing program at Lawrence County Career and Technical Center for more than two decades.

The adult program, located inside the vocational-technical school on Phelps Way, opened in 1968 and has graduated hundreds of men and women who have gone on to successful careers in nursing homes, hospitals, doctors’ offices, urgent care clinics, emergency rooms, surgical centers and other medical facilities.

But a continued decline in enrollment and student retention rates has caused budget figures to slide into the red.

During the past two years, the program, which subsists on tuition, has operated at a deficit, with the career and technical center supporting it.

Now Tillia is looking for new ways to boost revenue so the program can repay a climbing debt to the vo-tech school.

While the national student retention rate average is 68 percent, the retention rates in the nursing program have ranged from 34 to 35 percent during the 2011-12 school year to 54 to 56 percent for the 2010-11 year.



NOT MEETING QUOTA

 Fifty students are needed per year to break even, said Tillia, the program’s director. There are 41 students enrolled this year, but a question is how many will remain in the program.

In the past few years, the quota has not been met because of economic times, Tillia said. Thus, the nursing program has not broken even. It owes the career and technical center more than a half-million dollars in rent and operational costs, and the debt has been growing.

At its March 21 meeting, the joint operating committee agreed to give Tillia until June 30, 2014, to come up with funds to meet the program’s obligations to the school.

The program operates under the umbrella of the career and technical center, and is a line item in the school’s budget, explained Chastity Williams, business manager. The nursing program’s typical annual obligation to school is around $50,000.

She added that as of February, the nursing program had repaid about $17,000 of its outstanding debt. It still owes $526,159.



DISTRICTS OWED

Dr. Andrew Tommelleo, career and technical center director, said the school has been using general operating funds toward the program, and in turn, the center owes money to the participating school districts.

Each year, local school districts that send students to the vocational-technical school pay a per-pupil amount based on estimated enrollment at the beginning of the year. If enrollment falls below that figure, at the end of the year the center has to repay the district the difference between the estimate and the actual number of students enrolled.

The center currently owes the districts a total of $450,573. That includes $170,698 to New Castle, $31,462 to Mohawk, $50,199 to Neshannock, $96,365 to Shenango, $41,030 to Union and $60,819 to Wilmington.

That money has not been repaid to the districts largely because the deficit from the nursing program has impacted the school’s cash flow, Tommelleo explained.

He informed the board at its March 21 meeting that refunds to the districts will not be paid until the center has the money.

Williams explained the center is not allowed to have a fund balance because its income is from participating schools. The nursing program has a deferred fund for any profits it makes, and when it shows a profit, the money goes into that fund after the program pays its bills to the school. The deferred fund has not had any money in it for a couple of years, she said, because of the debt.



REVENUE PLANS

Tillia has met with school officials and requested time to come up with plans to generate new funds and get her budget back on track.

Tommelleo, in turn, is asking the school districts to be patient in waiting for their repayments.

He said that if the financial gap isn’t closing in a year, staff cuts and teaching changes will have to be made in the nursing program.

“I’ve told Betty we can’t continue to have deficits every month,” Tommelleo said. “We have to make some significant changes, and she understands that. And I will promise you I’ll stick to that timeline.”

David DiGiammarino, a New Castle school board member who sits on the joint operating committee, had been questioning the program’s finances for a couple of months at the vo-tech board meetings.

“All I’m asking for is a viable plan to pay back this enormous amount of money,” he said at the most recent meeting. “I’m still waiting to see how this can be accomplished.”

Tommelleo said Tillia has an aggressive plan and has several ideas for programs that could enhance revenues.

“Betty’s not sitting still,” he said. “She’s feeling the pressure.”

“I’m happy about the fact that we at least have a deadline,” committee member Anna Pascarella of New Castle commented.

“What if the debt is $700,00 by then?” DiGiammarino asked.

All eight districts in the county are represented on the vo-tech school’s board. New Castle has four members and Ellwood City, two. Each of the other six districts has one member.



SUCCESSFUL PROGRAM

The nursing program is a rigorous one that has churned out many successful students, Tillia said. “Nursing is not easy,” she stressed.

Governed by the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing, the school graduated 14 students on Feb. 18, at 83 percent retention, and had a 100 percent pass rate on state board of nursing exams, Tillia pointed out.

Each class lasts for one year, with sessions beginning each September and February, while the school’s budget operates from July to July.

If the graduates are approved by the state board of nursing, they can take the state exam to become licensed.

“We’ve had a 100 percent pass rate as of Oct. 31,” Tillia said, “and 100 percent for the entire year.”

She added the group that graduated in February will be testing soon.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)