College of San Mateo's dental program is in decay 

A locked, darkened room sits on the third floor of a sparkling new building at the College of San Mateo. Pipes poke out of its walls and floors, gathering dust.

The room was supposed to be the center of a new dental hygienist training program, and was built at considerable expense using voter-approved bond funding.  

But by the time the building was completed last year, the community college had lost so much state funding that it was forced to put the hygienist training program on indefinite hold. Until the state bounces back financially, the expensive room will likely remain locked and darkened, college President Michael Claire said.

“When we’re cutting English classes and mathematics classes and there’s waiting lists for those, you have to make some decisions about what you can and can’t do,” Claire said. “You have to make really tough decisions about the have-to-haves versus the nice-to-haves.”

Across the state, public entities have faced a similar problem, as voters approve funding for new facilities but there is no money to run them once they’re constructed.

In the case of the College of San Mateo, the concept was to expand its already-successful dental assistant program to include a dental hygiene program, which involves an extra year of training. In 2005, college leaders who already were planning to include a 10-chair dental assistant training room in a planned athletic building decided the time was right to build an adjacent 18-chair facility for a new dental hygienist program.

Building the two programs adjacent to each other made sense, so they could share a dental lab and X-ray lab, Claire said.

But then, all the money went away.

“We’ve made a 22 percent reduction in our operating budget in the last three years,” Claire said.
Without that money, the school could no longer afford to consider a program that would operate at a $1.5 million deficit each year.

Before the decision was made to put the new program on hold, students already had taken part in introductory dental hygiene courses, and about 40 or 50 were interested in the new program, which would have graduated about 30 students a year.

Many of those students were deeply disappointed, said Audrey Behrens, co-director of the dental assisting department. She said most students had few other choices, since several Bay Area colleges and universities have shut down their dental hygienist departments in recent years, and many private schools charge $50,000 to $70,000 for the program. On the other hand, dental hygienist positions have dried up with the recession, faster than the lower-paid dental assistant jobs.

“Maybe right now wasn’t the time to open it anyway, because there’s no jobs,” Behrens said.

Claire and Behrens are hopeful that the program can go forward once the economy turns around and the district has more money to play around with. Until then, the room will remain as it is: ready, but empty.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

The teeth of hygienists’  duties and responsibilities

Each state has its own regulations, but California allows dental hygienists to perform specific duties including the following:

- Patient screening, medical history, dental charting

- Examination of the head, neck and oral cavity for disease

- Exposing, developing and interpreting radiographs (X-rays)

- Application of fluoride and protective sealants

- Removal of calculus (tartar), stains and plaque from above and below the gumline

- Administer local anesthesia and nitrous oxide

- Provide nutritional counseling and recommend self-care programs to prevent disease.

Source: California Dental Hygienists Association

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Katie Worth

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