Fredonia Nurse Shortage Draws Public Outcry

Regina Willey, a Fredonia resident and parent, spoke to the Fredonia Board of Education regarding the need for more nurses at Fredonia schools. P-J photo by Braden Carmen

Five Fredonia residents spoke out at this month’s Board of Education meeting to urge the district to address a shortage of nurses at Fredonia schools.

The speakers — Andrew Ludwig, Brandy Kachelmeyer, Regina Willey, Kristi Leone, and Doug Essek — followed the lead of High School Principal Darrin Paschke, who brought the issue to the board’s attention at a meeting last month. Since then, another School Nurse, Theresa Sanders, has resigned. The District is now left with one registered nurse and one licensed practical nurse between the four schools: Wheelock School, Fredonia Elementary School, Fredonia Middle School and Fredonia High School.

Willey and Leone each shared personal stories of their children, who are students in the district that each have unique needs that require daily medical attention. Kachelmeyer, a former Fredonia school nurse, spoke to the importance of school nurses and the services they provide to a district. Ludwig and Essek each advocated for nurses to be compensated more for the work that they do.

Willey, a graduate of Fredonia High School and the parent of two Fredonia students, spoke on behalf of the needs of her daughter, who has Type-I diabetes. Her daughter takes daily insulin injections, which must be monitored, ideally by an adult with medical training.

Last month, due to staffing issues, Willey’s daughter was directed to the office because no nurse was available at the school at the time. “I find this very unsettling, disturbing, upsetting,” Willey said.

Willey also took issue with the District’s lack of communication with parents and guardians at the time of the shortage. “I wasn’t able to help my daughter,” Willey said.

Fredonia Superintendent Dr. Brad Zilliox later publicly apologized for the day Willey referenced. “We could have, and should have, done a better job communicating with our families on that day,” Zilliox said. “I take responsibility for that. I apologize for that.”

Willey also described how crucial it is to address low blood sugar quickly. Without adequately staffed health offices, Willey is fearful of what that could mean for her daughter. She said, “It’s your responsibility to take care of our kids. I put my faith into everybody here at this school to take care of my child, and if you can’t take care of her, what do I do?”

Leone later shared a sobering reality of the challenges her daughter, Elliana Leone, faces. Elliana is a first grade student at Fredonia Elementary School who was born with Spina Bifida, a condition where the spinal cord does not develop properly.

Elliana Leone uses a wheelchair because she cannot move or feel the lower portion of her body. She must use a catheter to empty her bladder, which requires a nurse to administer. “As her mother, I need to feel comfortable when I leave her at school, that my daughter isn’t subjected to strangers performing very private, very invasive tasks for her,” Kristi Leone said.

Kristi Leone also noted that because her daughter is unable to feel the lower part of her body, she does not always notice when she is injured. On one occasion, when Elliana was crawling on a wooden sandbox at one of the district’s handicap-inaccessible playgrounds, she sustained several splinters up her legs because she could not feel any pain.

During routine checks, the district’s now-former nurse, Sanders, would make sure Elliana did not sustain any lower body injuries she was unable to detect. Kristi Leone commended Sanders for the work she did with her daughter. “From the day I met Mrs. Sanders, she was super supportive, kind, helpful and empathetic,” she said. “… Sanders was incredibly cognizant of Elliana’s needs, often calling or emailing me with any areas of concern that she noticed. … I personally wanted to take a moment to publicly express my gratitude for her kindness, communication, and concern for my daughter.”

Kachelmeyer, a former Fredonia school nurse who now works at Erie 2 BOCES, also spoke to the reality of a school nurse’s job responsibilities and compensation. Kachelmeyer noted upon her departure from the District, Fredonia was among the lowest paying districts in the region for school nurse positions. She stated upon switching to BOCES, she made $8 per hour more than she made at Fredonia.

From immunizations and physicals to emergency plans and trainings on administering emergency treatments, school nurses play a vital role in student health and safety. The issue is even more personal to Kachelmeyer, as not only a parent of a Fredonia student, but also as the wife of Fredonia school safety officer Tim Kachelmeyer.

“I implore the board to please make sure that you have nurses at our school. The students deserve it. The safety of the student and the staff should be of utmost importance. If that means changing job descriptions to get the nurses out of the union so that they can get better pay, then so be it,” Kachelmeyer said.

Ludwig, a former Fredonia principal, stated he is in favor of increasing nursing pay, as well as increased compensation to civil service employees and support staff. He also voiced support for athletic facility upgrades and enhanced music spaces.

“All of these measures should have been taken years ago, if not decades ago,” Ludwig said.

Ludwig then stated that while he is in support of many increased costs to the District, he believes it should be a “team effort” to find the funding to do so, rather than relying on taxpayers to foot the bill on a sizable increase.

“I’m asking the board, the administration and the teachers to please work together as a team in order to come up with a plan to finance all these wants and needs that will not be too hurtful to the taxpaying public,” Ludwig said.

Essek, the former Fredonia mayor, who is a district employee, spoke later in the meeting on behalf of the Civil Service Employees Association. He noted that low wages have caused the district to lose employees, while qualified applicants have declined positions with the district once they learned what the pay would be.

“The key to any organization’s success are its employees. Fredonia Central needs to attract and retain good employees. This is being done with administration and faculty. They are fairly compensated. The district values their positions in this organization,” Essek said. “It is the paramount duty of the district that children are safe and healthy. The district is not maintaining an adequate nursing staff for the safety of our students. As an employee and a school taxpayer, I do not want to wait for the unthinkable to happen, for a student to have a medical emergency and the District to not have adequate nursing staff on duty to help, and something tragic happens.”

The district has contacted BOCES to ask for additional school nurses, but BOCES was unable to assist with the district’s needs. The district also contracts a nursing service from Buffalo, but assistance is often not available.

“We recognize, as a governance team, that we are not where we want to be with our school nurses. We absolutely believe that we need four school nurses, one at each school. Currently, we do not have that,” Zilliox said at the end of the public comment portion of the meeting. He added, “You are correct that nurses perform important work each and every day. … They bring an incredible amount of value to the district.”

The district also recently hired a school nurse assistant, Megan Narraway, to a probationary position beginning March 1, through next February. As a nurse assistant, Narraway can assist the district’s health offices with clerical duties to ease the burden on the district’s current staff, despite being unable to administer medications. The district will continue to seek additional school nurse applicants.

“This is not the same as a school nurse, and we are not pretending that it is, but we do believe it will be helpful in assisting our nurses in their duties and responsibilities as we continue to seek additional Registered Nurses,” Zilliox said.

Near the conclusion of the meeting, Board of Education Vice President Steven Johnston, board member Tom Hawk, and director of Special Education Kristen Ferro each thanked members of the public for speaking out on the issue.

“I really appreciate the community members and the parents that came forward tonight. I think the comments that were made were sobering, honestly, and have given all of us the opportunity to take some pause to really think about some things that are critical for us,” Ferro said. “… I look forward to working together with all the stakeholders to solve some of these issues.”


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