By William Kincaid
A Mercer County health official and some local superintendents have no clue how a new state law will directly affect the health department and the schools, especially financially.
Gov. Bob Taft signed Jarod's Law on Dec. 19. The new legislation -- which was created in response to the death of a 6-year-old boy when a cafeteria table fell on him at a school in Lebanon -- will require health departments to annually in-spect schools for dangerous health and safety conditions.
The state health director, working simultaneously with three other Ohio agencies, must establish minimum standards for safety inspections for all public and nonpublic school building and grounds within the state. The School Health and Safety Network, also to be established by the state health director, then will work with every county health board to ensure minimum safety standards and procedures are met in each school.
The Mercer County Board of Health currently inspects the sanitary conditions of all schools semi-annually. The law says those inspections must continue, in addition to the new requirements every year.
And what are those new requirements? According to Beth Bickford, the executive director of the Ohio Health Commissioners, they have yet to be established. The state health director has 18 months after the effective date of the law, March 21, to create them.
"We don't have the administrative regulations yet," Fort Recovery Superintendent David Riel told The Daily Standard. "The local health department is trying to secure what the regulations are. We don't even know what they're looking for."
Coldwater Superintendent Rich Seas said he wants to know how the new law will affect his schools, which is nearing the end of a $40 million building project. In other words, what can the school do now to prevent future citations when the actual requirements are imposed?
"It seems to be very vague," Seas said about the new law. "We're going through building renovations ... what are we putting in that's already in violation?"
Seas said Treasurer Sherry Shaffer has contacted the Mercer County Health Department and a representative is scheduled to visit the school Monday.
"We want a representative to see as it pertains to the law, because we want to see how we're going to match up," Seas said. "If we're in violation, maybe we can make the changes now."
Seas complained about the vagueness of the law, saying the law could include carpet issues, the proximity of parked vehicles to the school, limitations on weed spray and more.
"There's a whole lot of things out there," he said.
And when the time comes for the actual inspections, whenever that may be, the principal or administrator must provide access to the premises at any time and provide any records or other information the board asks for, which Seas also finds disturbing.
Seas said no one seems to know anything about the law. When he contacted the Ohio State Facilities Commission, who are currently involved with the Coldwater's building project, they didn't have a clue about it, he said.
But he said he does understand the importance of a law adding safety requirements. The law is named after Jarod Bennett, who was killed Dec. 19, 2003, when a 290-pound cafeteria table fell on his head, according to the Bennett family Web site.
"Anything you can do for the safety of kids, the students and staff, you certainly want to do it," Seas said. "You have to be careful how you implement certain laws."
And perhaps the most important question, who's going to pay for the implementation of the new law?
Bickford said there will be no money involved, as the local health departments already conduct sanitary inspections. But when asked about the extended time the health board would need to make the additional inspections -- and the possibility of needing to increase staff or extend staff hours -- Bickford said "there won't be too much" money needed.
"We know there will be some (costs) in the time of people and additional things," she said.
There also may be some costs to schools, if they need to be brought up to par with the new requirements, such as possibly having to buy new cafeteria tables.
Dr. Philip Masser, administrator of the Mercer County Health Department, said he's heard very little from any of the state agencies involved with the law and does not know how the law will affect staffing or additional costs.
"I'm pretty much in the dark," he said.
Masser also said many times the practicalities of such laws take a long time until they are enforced at the local level.
According to an Ohio School Board Association press release, each board of education will be required to develop a plan of resolution, once the inspection findings are reported.
Bickford says she sees the law as an opportunity to update the entire program of health and safety standards, which have not been updated since the 1970s, she said.