07/01/09 — Cherry Hospital faces potential school loss

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Cherry Hospital faces potential school loss

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on July 1, 2009 1:46 PM

The future of Riverbend School at Cherry Hospital could be at risk, if the state decides to cut back on services of schools at psychiatric hospitals.

Currently, school services must be provided to young patients, particularly those hospitalized for longer periods.

Earlier this week, Dwight Pearson, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services' office of education services, indicated that local school districts might be called upon to pick up the slack for these students' education.

According to the Associated Press, a representative of the agency had sent an e-mail advising teachers working in psychiatric hospitals to begin looking for new positions.

"They have concluded that hospitals don't have to have schools," said Dr. Linda Deans, who has been principal at Riverbend School for the past three years. "They just have to have educational programs, so they'll consider reducing us from our staff of 12 -- they've already gotten rid of a secretary -- to a staff of three, three teachers that would tutor the kids. We have no definitive anything. We're just waiting until we get the final word."

Renee McCoy, director of public affairs with DHHS, said the memo was misconstrued.

"There really isn't a directive" advising workers to seek other employment, she said. "What that was basically doing, what we want to do is offer any employee an opportunity to explore any other options."

Philip Cook, Cherry Hospital director, said the move is part of the "contingency stage" of looking at the budget as it relates to providing ancillary services.

"With the budget shortfall, we're trying to look at some things that we're doing that are not essential," he said this morning, confirming that the school could be a "potential" casualty of budget cuts.

Cook also commented about the e-mails circulated among staff.

"At this point, we did talk with our personnel here and let them know that there was a potential (for cuts to the program)," he said. "We felt like they needed to be aware of that."

The Department of Public Instruction, responsible for public schools across the state, is the governing educational body. Recently, it combined forces with DHHS schools, creating the office of educational services.

Pearson is on vacation and unavailable for comment, Ms. McCoy said.

The possibility of cutbacks to psychiatric hospital schools is not necessarily specific to Cherry, she said.

"We're looking at all of the ways we're educating students at our facilities across the state. This is our way of trying to do a particular job with less funds. We're looking at the situation the budget has put us in. We're in a holding pattern until the General Assembly tells us what we have to work with, looking at a number of different options and still meet the needs of what the students must have."

No matter what changes are afoot, Cook promised "very good services" for its youth population will continue.

"It would just be in a different model, a different format," he said, noting that in acute care for adolescents, "there's typically not a certified school" at each psychiatric site.

--The Associated Press also contributed to this story.