Ellen Binder's dramatic account of barely eluding a life-threatening bout with cancer serves as prima facie evidence of the value of wellness screenings. As the Manatee County school district combs through every line item in the budget looking for cost controls and cuts, the King Middle School teacher's experience should be a consideration.
With top district administrators dealing with a financial nightmare as the end of the fiscal year nears and a balanced budget seemingly out of reach, Superintendent Rick Mills issued an order freezing all spending that is not required by state statute for safety and health.
The situation is so dire that Mills has directed any unnecessary spending be drawn right out of staff salaries. He eliminated all purchase cards, canceled orders, froze hiring and banned overtime. Spending requests must be approved by top administrators.
The literal penny-pinching will continue into the next budget year and likely beyond as the district recovers from a disastrous $3.5 million budget deficit brought on by accounting blunders and system failures and discovered last summer.
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The pressure on administrators and the school board remains intense, especially with an almost nonexistent reserve of $100,000 when the state mandates a 3 percent fund balance -- that's $10 million for Manatee County.
Those brutal circumstances translate into very difficult decisions on spending priorities. Classrooms and students come first, although teacher salaries and benefits account for the vast majority of the budget.
Overall, personnel comprise 80 percent of district costs. If attrition and retirements don't reduce staffing levels adequately, layoffs could be in the offing.
The storm clouds hanging over the district could not be any darker.
The district's wellness screening program does not come cheap. The district projects 1,400 employees will take advantage of this benefit by year's end. At a cost of $67 apiece, the tally comes to $93,800 with employee-paid premiums paying a small portion of that. When nickels and dimes matter, that's a lot of change coming out of the district's pockets.
District wellness specialist Diana Sitar places high value on the screening program: "A healthy employee will be more productive in the classroom," she told Herald education reporter Erica Earl for last Monday's article about the program.
And, as Ellen Binder's experience indicates, screening can save an enormous amount of money. Soon after school started in 2010, she seized the opportunity and answered a quesionnaire, got a blood pressure reading and took a blood test. The results showed elevated liver enzymes.
Following a recommendation, she visited an internist for additional tests, and doctors found a pre-cancerous growth in her pancreas. She underwent successful surgery to remove the mass, which had the potential to develop into pancreatic cancer.
Anyone familiar with pancreatic cancer knows about the extremely poor prognosis and very low survival rates. It's the fourth most common cause of cancer-related deaths in the country.
Binder's case is very rare. "The surgeons at Johns Hopkins told me I was so lucky that the growth was detected as early as it was," she recounted to Earl. "They were astounded.
In all likelihood, that simple screening saved Binder's life and certainly spared her from debilitating and agonizing cancer treatments and surgery.
Ultimately, her screening saved the district from more costly medical expenses and lost classroom time.
The dollar value of wellness screenings is readily apparent with Binder's case. So is the incalculable value of an employee's health and welfare.