Education Lab

Mental health tab up in air

Starting today, Fresno County will no longer pick up the tab for mental health services that local school districts must provide -- and it's not clear where the money will come from to help special education students.

The county has been getting money from the state since 1984. But six months ago, the state cut off the funds. This month, Fresno County supervisors decided to stop subsidizing the program -- and to bill the schools.

Children won't go without services. For now, the county says it will provide the care for severe depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other mental conditions.

But schools have to start paying -- or make other arrangements for the students.

That's bad news for school districts, which already face financial difficulties. Valley school districts have sent out hundreds of layoff notices to teachers amid uncertainty over the state budget and the prospect of deep funding cuts.

And the mental health services aren't cheap. While only about 200 children out of 190,000 countywide receive mental health services from the county, the care costs about $2 million a year.

Footing the bill could mean hard choices for schools -- possibly including even more staff layoffs, officials said.

"The impact this is going to have on an already strapped educational budget could be catastrophic to some districts," said Matt Navo, pupil services director at Sanger Unified School District. Sanger, a district of about 10,500, has 18 students who receive services from the county, Navo said.

Running out of options

County mental health officials say they had no choice but to charge schools.

For the next three months alone, it would cost the department $500,000 to continue providing treatment to the children and adolescents, said Donna Taylor, the county's director of behavioral health.

The department doesn't have the money, she said.

Last year, the department spent more than $1 million on the special education program between June and December. The department will bill school districts for costs not reimbursed by the state, Taylor said.

The county had been counting on getting $2.2 million from the state to pay for the program this fiscal year, which began June 30. But on Oct. 8, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state Legislature suspended funding. Counties and school districts contested the suspension in court.

Recently, an appellate court upheld Schwarzenegger's right to suspend funding for AB 3632 -- the 1984 legislation that mandated counties provide the mental health services. And the court ruled the suspension had the legal effect of freeing counties from their obligation to provide services, Taylor said in an April 6 letter to schools.

Based on the appellate court ruling, Fresno County supervisors decided they no longer could afford to provide the services without reimbursement, Taylor said.

The legal battle isn't over. Last week, the California School Boards Association, Los Angeles Unified and the Manhattan Beach Unified School District filed a petition with the California Supreme Court for a review of the decision by the appellate court, said Richard Hamilton, director of the association's education legal alliance and associate general counsel.

But, for now Fresno County schools are on the financial hook.

Schools feel squeeze

School officials said they are ill-prepared to pay for the services.

They don't know how much they already owe the county for services rendered this fiscal year. There was no need for schools to keep an accounting: The behavioral health department directly billed the state.

A school district's bill could be in the thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on how many students need services and what type of services are required. Individual counseling for a child can cost $3,000 to $16,000 a year, depending on how often the child needs to see a therapist. Residential treatment can easily exceed $35,000 a year.

"We're asking for estimates," said Navo of Sanger Unified.

School districts, faced with tight budgets, will have to consider everything -- including layoffs -- to pay for mental health services, said Mike Berg, superintendent at Central Unified School District. Central, a district of about 14,500 students, has 30 students receiving county services.

Mental health services will place an additional burden on the district's general fund, Berg said.

"And where our general fund is impacted, it affects everything," he said.

Looking for solutions

There's a chance Fresno County's behavioral health department will have some money beginning July 1 for special education students. It would come from $150 million included in the state budget for educationally related mental health services.

But Taylor, the behavioral health director, isn't counting on it.

Even so, that amount would fall short of the $200 million estimated need, Taylor said. And the state has not told counties what services they will be able to provide with the money.

Schools are supposed to get about $80 million for the 2011-12 fiscal year -- but school officials said that doesn't help schools this year and won't be enough next year.

County mental health counselors and therapists won't turn away students until transition plans by the schools are in place, Taylor said. And she said the department is willing to continue serving special education students, if schools pay.

Fresno Unified, the largest district in the county with about 76,000 students, will continue services with the county until some kind of agreement between the district and the behavioral health department can be worked out, said Sue Pellegrino, the district's special education director. About 150 district students receive county services, she said.

"There will not be a disruption in services," she said. Fresno Unified will look for grants and other sources of revenue to pay for services, she said. And it may use its own school psychologists and social workers to provide some of the counseling.

Clovis Unified, a district of about 38,000 students, has 81 students receiving services from the county. A meeting is planned with the county today to discuss the situation, said Mary Betry Bass, the district's administrator of psychological services and Special Education Local Plan Area.

Bass said most of the students likely will continue to receive care from the county while the district and county work out a plan for the students.

Clovis parent Linda Graves has two sons receiving county mental health services. She's been told her sons will continue to see their therapists, at least for the time being. One of the boys receives therapy for depression and the other for a bipolar disorder, she said.

"Their therapists are marvelous and have made all the difference in my sons' abilities to function in the school environment," Graves said.

"I think it's unconscionable that we balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable members of our society -- the kids with mental conditions."