Chanda Turner, health coordinator for Portland schools, is losing her job along with 30 others around the state because the state Department of Health and Human Services cut funding for the positions. Posters in the foreground were part of teaching about healthy eating.
The LePage administration has eliminated funding for all school health coordinators in the state, a move that will save $2.1 million annually but will leave Portland and 30 other school districts without the staff members. Most have already left their jobs.
The decision was made in mid-June and took effect July 1, too late for most local districts to make up for the shortfall because voters and municipal boards have already approved school budgets for the 2012-2013 school year.
"For Portland and schools across the state, the funding was eliminated at the 11th hour and nobody has time to react to that," said Ron Adams, food service director for Portland schools.
He said school officials have yet to figure out how to continue the work of the district's health coordinator, Chanda Turner, who will be leaving in a few weeks after temporary funding found by the district dries up.
Health coordinators are charged with developing school health policies, overseeing health education curriculums and addressing other health issues, such as improving the nutrition in school lunches.
Turner, for example, led efforts to add salad bars to school cafeterias, ban soda sales on school grounds, overhaul the sex education program at secondary schools and create district policies that encourage walking or biking to school.
She also secured grant funding that covers fresh fruit and vegetable snacks served at six schools.
Portland schools have had a health coordinator for at least 10 years, paid for primarily with money from the Fund for Healthy Maine, which the Maine Legislature created in 1999 to receive and disburse Maine's annual tobacco settlement payments.
As part of an effort to close a nearly $83 million shortfall in the Department of Health and Human Services budget, the Legislature in May approved $2.8 million in cuts to the Healthy Maine Partnership program, which provides the money for the school health coordinators.
In June, officials at Health and Human Services eliminated funding for the health coordinators so they could prevent even deeper cuts to the state's 27 Healthy Maine Partnership organizations, which deal with public health issues in communities, said John Martins, the department's spokesman.
He said the school health coordinators program only benefited 31 of Maine's 164 school districts, and it made sense to cut programs that did not benefit the entire state.
"We are not belittling the work they have done," he said of the health coordinators. "Many have done great work. We are looking at a pot of money in a statewide way."
The lack of notice has left Portland officials scrambling to figure out who will continue Turner's work. She said the district will no longer have a single point person for health issues.
Turner's salary is $53,494, most of which has been paid by the state. Including benefits, the state provided $66,500 a year for each school health coordinator.
A big part of Turner's job is writing grants, she said, and she believes that task will be too time-consuming for other school officials to take on along with their other duties.
During her five-year tenure with the district, she has secured grants totaling $1.2 million.
"We won't be able to apply for as many grants," she said. "You are asking people who already have full plates to add things on their plate."
The school health coordinators were among the state's public heath initiatives that have made Maine a national model, said state Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, who serves on the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.
Craven said it's important to restore funding for the program but not at the expensive of cutting other health programs. She said she hopes the state can find some grant funding.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: