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Santa Cruz Sentinel
October 23, 2010
SANTA CRUZ - School districts in Santa Cruz and across the state are reeling from the recent elimination of state funding for students' mental health services.
On Oct. 8, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut more than $130 million in funding for children with mental health needs, during a line-item veto following the long-awaited state budget agreement.
"It's a grave issue," county Superintendent of Schools Michael Watkins said. "He took the funding, but it's still a mandate, so the question is how can we get the money? With the legislature on recess and a new governor, trying to get something back in could be difficult."
In Santa Cruz County, 112 students receive mental health services to the annual tune of about $500,000, said Salli Price Welsh, assistant superintendent at the County Office of Education. That is a small portion of the special education population, she said.
School districts provide counseling and other services to students whenever possible, Welsh said. Those needing services beyond what the district can provide are typically referred to the Office of Education and then to county mental health.
But it appears the state won't be providing reimbursement for those services this year.
Thursday, a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court by Public Counsel, Disability Rights California, Mental Health Advocacy Services and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher over the loss of the funding the state has provided for more than 20 years.
The services include crisis counseling, case management, medication management and residential placement.
"Not many subjects get attention as fast as this," Welsh said. "It effects really critical areas of need for students."
According to the California Mental Health Directors Association, it is unclear if the governor has the legal authority to suspend the mandated funding and if so, what the effective date of that suspension is.
What is clear is that local school districts are responsible under federal law to provide special education and related services, stated Patricia Ryan, the association's director.
County mental health officials were on furlough Friday, and not available for comment, but they work in tandem with the County Office of Education. The program at county mental health employs 16 people in a $2.4 million program, according education officials.
Welsh said the county office is obviously concerned about the financial impact on already strapped school districts.
"But my biggest concern is how these kids are going to be served," she said. "There is a lot of confusion right now. I don't know what the thinking was, but it certainly has created maelstrom out there."
Pajaro Valley Unified School District runs its own special education program, serving 2,400 children, said Ray Houser, the program's director.
Less than 5 percent of those receive mental health services, Houser said, but some of the services are significant. Providing them without state funding could be devastating, he said.
"No one has an answer right now," Houser said. "But I feel a little bit better after hearing about the legal challenge."
State Superintendent of Schools Jack O'Connell issued a statement about the cut Friday.
"After underfunding public education by more than $21 billion over the last three budgets, it is unconscionable that the governor would take away this funding for critically needed mental health services to students, leaving school districts responsible for meeting such a huge unfunded mandate," O'Connell stated. "I question whether his action is constitutional."