Kaleida Health and their nurses took their fight to City Hall Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to maintain their longtime relationship caring for the kids of Buffalo Public Schools — but it was too late.
The Buffalo Board of Education agreed to a new three-year nursing contract with a new provider, Supplemental Health Care, whose nurses will replace the Kaleida nurses who staffed district schools for the past 13 years.
The new contract starts July 1.
"What you saw tonight was an outpouring of passion and support for the nurses," said Michael Hughes, Kaleida's chief of staff. "Obviously, the board took the vote they thought was in the best interest of the kids, but clearly is designed as a cost-cutting move. In the end, the kids and the nurses are the ones who lose here."
Kaleida, which was disqualified from making a new bid, asked the School Board to excuse the fact that its proposal was 16 minutes late.
One by one, parents, nurses and top Kaleida officials called on the board to reset the proposal process so Kaleida had a chance to continue providing pediatric care to tens of thousands of the city's children.
"Please do not make a decision on finance only," said school nurse Audrey Tobin. "Make a decision based on quality of care."
"My job entails far more than giving out Band-Aids and pills," said school nurse Karla Mancuso.
School nurse Kim Utech asked the board to consider whether the health care in the school will be better next year than it is today. "If the answer is no, than the Board of Education has the duty to do something about it," Utech said.
School Superintendent Kriner Cash instead recommended bidders Supplemental Health Care — which will provide the bulk of care — and Sunbelt Staffing receive the new three-year contract, which totals a little more than $6 million in the first year.
"This has never been about money only," Cash said. "We've studied this. We looked at this carefully and this is an extremely seasoned organization, highly recommended with local and regional experience."
"In my over 40 years of experience, I would never bring a recommendation I thought wasn't in the best interest of children," Cash said.
The meeting was passionate and heated. Supporters of Kaleida, whose nurses are unionized, said the district was focused on the union, while Cash questioned the tactics used by Kaleida under the guise it was best for children and families.
"That's unethical," Cash said.
Kaleida promised all 76 of their nurses based in the schools they would still have jobs within the company, but the nurses were concerned about the level of care and longstanding relationships they have built with children and families.
Some board members were concerned there were still too many unanswered questions. There was discussion about holding off on the vote, but the superintendent cautioned about the issue's becoming more politicized the longer the board waited.
The new contract eventually passed in a close vote, with five board members voting in favor. Barbara Seals Nevergold and Hope Jay voted against it. Jennifer Mecozzi abstained, while Catherine Flanagan-Priore recused herself, because she is employed by Kaleida Health.
The vote brings to an end a public spat between two of the region's powerful entities.
The bids for the new nursing contract were due at 11 a.m. Jan. 4. Thirteen bids were submitted for the contract, including one from Kaleida, which submitted its proposal 16 minutes late.
While Kaleida officials said they were embarrassed by the error and have taken full responsibility for it, they pointed out that an electronic copy of its proposal was emailed to the district before the deadline.
It was only recently — four months later — that Kaleida received notice its bid was rejected.
The school district, meanwhile, said Kaleida is familiar with the bidding process and should have known the district does not accept electronic proposals. The district held onto the late bid in the event the other bids submitted did not meet requirements. In explaining the four-month lag in notifying Kaleida, district officials said bids are ideally awarded more quickly, but this case was more complex and involved many proposals.
Nurses from Kaleida stepped in and took over duties in the Buffalo Public Schools as part of a deal worked out in 2005, after funding for school nurses was eliminated by Erie County, which had previously provided the service to city schools.
Since then, Kaleida has won the contract with Buffalo Public Schools three times, the last one expiring in 2015, but twice extended.