School money for dental care remains unused

Published February 8, 2007

LAND O'LAKES - The Pasco County school district has $18,000 sitting in the bank that it can't use.

District leaders blame the Jessica Lunsford Act.

The money is set aside to provide dental care for poor students identified by their school nurses.

"If I put out the word that we have a dentist on contract, they would fill up the calendar," says Karen Brown, the district's nursing supervisor. "But we're down to, no one is willing to do it."

The hang-up? Dentists have balked at having to spend their time and money for criminal background checks on their office staff members, to make sure no one is a sexual offender or predator.

They are required to do that under the Jessica Lunsford Act, to accept payment from the school district, even though they may have undergone previous checks for participating in other programs such as Medicaid.

"They're refusing to do it," Brown says. "The ironic thing is, if they're licensed by the state of Florida ... we know that they've already gone through that check."

Michelle Cooper, office manager for Lakeview Family Dentistry in Bayonet Point, said she didn't know enough about the fingerprinting issue to comment. Her group stopped working directly with the school district only after it didn't get any patients coming in, she said.

But Cooper acknowledged a lack of participation among Pasco dentists generally in charitable activities.

"Our biggest problem is there's not a lot out there for the kids in Pasco County," said Cooper, who is helping to organize the Give Kids a Smile Day at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

The event has turned away more than 200 children because there aren't enough dentists signed up to treat them.

Melanie Hagerty, school nurse for Sun Ray and Cotee River elementary schools, laments the situation. She said she could easily come up with 100 students at each school to take advantage of the school district's $18,000 fund.

She mentioned a kindergartener who has severe tooth decay that's gone untreated. She spoke of a fellow nurse who had students needing root canals their families could not afford.

"I understand the dentist and the staff's feelings," Hagerty said. "It's a little bit too much."

The district takes fingerprints in Land O'Lakes, regardless of where the dentist office is located. If a single receptionist isn't fully vetted, the district would be in violation if a child were sent to the office, Brown said.

"The Jessica Lunsford Act is too strict," Hagerty said. "I think it's a good idea ... but in some cases, it's denying services to children who need them."

The Pasco School Board has asked lawmakers to amend the Jessica Lunsford Act to exempt dentists and doctors contracted with a school district from the fingerprinting requirement. Several bills relating to the act are filed, but so far none deals specifically with this issue.

If nothing changes, Brown said, the district will ultimately use the $18,000. It might go for laptop computers, or maybe for training new nurses. "But it could have gone for dental care," she said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. Check out our education blog, The Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.