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Voice of San Diego

October 28, 2010

State Cuts Students' Mental Health Services

In a shock to educators and county officials, the state of California won't be paying counties to provide counseling, therapy and other mental health services to students with disabilities.

When Gov. Schwarzenegger approved the budget earlier this month, he vetoed the $133 million string of funding and said that for now, counties don't have to provide the services.

Elsewhere in California, at least one other county has decided to keep covering the costs so that schools don't have to. San Diego County said it won't cover the costs because it isn't its job to clean up a mess that the state created. That could put strapped school districts across the county deeper in the hole.

"We regret that we are unable to provide these services, but the Governor and the Legislature have left us in an impossible situation," the county wrote in a letter to mental health providers.

San Diego County would have gotten $4 million from the state, along with $4 million from the federal government, which is now up in the air.

The money pays for everything from weekly counseling to residential care for children and teens with mental health needs.

School districts now have to figure out who will pay for the services.

Roughly 1,600 students currently use mental health services provided by San Diego County. Almost one third of them are eligible for Medi-Cal, which will continue to fund their services, said Alfredo Aguirre, the county mental health director. The rest of the children are left unfunded.

Under federal law, schools are responsible for special education services — period. But in California, they have relied on counties for decades to pick up the tab for mental health programs.

"The school districts can't pick up these costs," said Carol Bartz, director of a consortium that handles special education services for school districts in northeastern San Diego County. "Well, I guess they will, but it'll mean even bigger cuts in general education."

At least one other county has pledged not to put schools on the hook. The Sacramento Bee says that Sacramento County will keep covering the costs.

San Diego County has historically been reluctant to foot the bill for programs that California doesn't fund, as our investigation earlier this year revealed. The county will keep providing services until the end of December and no longer.

"They would have to gut other programs to fund this," Aguirre said.

Donna Marto, CEO of the nonprofit Family and Youth Roundtable, said she blames the governor, not the county. "It's like a chess game they're playing but there's kids in the middle," Marto said of the state.

Shirley Culver, program manager for the Mental Health Resource Center in San Diego Unified, estimated it would cost her school district $3 million to pick up the costs for mental health services. This isn't a good time for new expenses: San Diego Unified faces a nearly $142 million deficit for next school year.

Aguirre said the $4 million in federal money for students with disabilities that traditionally went to the county could go back to school districts, helping with the financial burden. But the details are still unclear for school districts scrambling to figure out how to keep serving students and cover the costs.

"It's making families very anxious. People were caught by surprise. What do we do now?" Culver said. She is waiting to hear from her bosses about how San Diego Unified will handle it.

Next week, San Diego County will also stop assessing students for free to see whether they need mental health services. Few districts have the resources to evaluate students for mental health services themselves, Aguirre said, so they will likely have to pay outside contractors or the county to do it.

The cut has already been challenged in court: Advocacy groups including Disability Rights California filed a class action lawsuit against the governor last week, arguing that he couldn't sever the funding because it put children "at imminent risk of irreparable harm."