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Washington school leaders are worried about students' mental health. Now lawmakers are proposing fixes

Seattle Times - 1/30/2020

Jan. 30--About 20 miles west of Spokane, a tiny school district is struggling to pay its sole school psychologist.

"We have more and more kids coming that have issues that are related to mental health," said Marcus Morgan, superintendent at Reardan-Edwall School District, which serves about 650 students. "It's one of our biggest, most urgent needs."

Morgan isn't alone in this belief -- or in the struggle to scrape together funds to pay mental-health staff's salaries. Before this year's legislative session kicked off, he and 58 other superintendents wrote to Washington's top education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Chris Reykdal, to support a proposal that would boost state funding for school psychologists, social workers, nurses and others who provide emotional support to students. The superintendents' letter suggested directing additional education dollars not toward teacher pay, but to staff who could support mental health.

The proposal is now gathering steam: Lawmakers introduced a bill based on the proposal that would change the way the state funds mental health and other health positions at schools. One goal is to boost funding and reduce the ratio of students to mental-health staff. Legislators are also considering at least five other bills that -- at least in theory -- would help districts establish school-based health centers.

Why the sudden attention to mental health in schools? For one, statewide surveys paint a grim picture of the well-being of Washington's young people. Roughly one-third of tenth-graders reported feelings of anxiousness and hopelessness, according to the state's 2018 Healthy Youth Survey. And over the past decade or so, the number of students who say they have suicidal thoughts has shot up by 35%. At a time when educators in Washington are trying to close achievement gaps, research suggests that improving students' well-being may help lift them academically.

It's due time to buff up the way schools support these students, many officials say. Although some districts offer school-based clinics with several staff apiece, others say they can't afford a single mental-health professional. In the Reardan-Edwall School District, for instance, the state of Washington picks up only one-tenth of the district psychologist's salary, so Morgan has turned to local levy dollars to make up the difference.

The state pays for these positions based on a formula developed in the late 1970s, which accounted for the typical number of students who attend the state's elementary, middle and high schools. That funding model "was based on ideas about what staffing should look like in schools a generation and a half ago," said Martin Mueller, assistant superintendent for student engagement and support at OSPI. The superintendents' proposal and legislation that supports it would adjust the equation and result in more money for psychologists and other health staff.

Some districts have built robust health programs despite the state's decades-old formula. Seattle Public Schools, for instance, formed partnerships with the King County health department and local health providers.

Others have turned to federal grants -- and learned how unstable they can be. An education district in Northeast Washington won federal money a few years ago to pay for eight mental-health counselors. But when the money ran out, those staff members lost their jobs, said Michael Dunn, superintendent at NorthEast Washington Educational Service District, which supports school districts in several northeast Washington counties, including four that benefited from the grant.

Now, education officials say they want the state to take a more active role -- and to come up with sustainable funding solutions. The superintendent-recommended proposal, generated by an OSPI working group with Reykdal's support, includes other recommendations that, together, would cost a total of $5.6 billion by 2024.

The school-based health-center bills offer several other ideas. "The fact that there [are several] bills, though, is instructive that we're not of one mind of how to approach this," Mueller said.

One bill would require every Washington school district with at least 2,000 students to partner with a health provider and establish a school-based health center by the 2025-26 school year, which could provide mental-health services, among other types of care. Small school districts could opt in if they choose. Officials haven't yet estimated the cost of this proposal, but according to its sponsor, many health services would be reimbursable through insurance.

"One of the reasons this model is so attractive to me is the health centers themselves carry the bulk of the cost," said sponsor Sen. Emily Randall, a Democrat of Bremerton.

School districts with such partnerships say there are upfront costs, such as building a health facility or paying staff to find a health care organization that's keen to set up shop on a school campus.

This can be a tough sell, some say.

"Most medical providers don't find this to be a moneymaking enterprise," said Tom Seigel, superintendent of Bethel School District in Spanaway, which serves about 21,000 students. "We've been trying for at least a decade to find somebody." He said the district recently signed a partnership with Community Health Care, a nonprofit health-care organization in Pierce County.

Other lawmakers want the state to study its options before creating a mandate, and promising taxpayer dollars to support it. Whether lawmakers kick in any money toward wellness in schools this year is uncertain, though Gov. Jay Inslee's budget proposal does call for more than $4 million to support school nurses and mental-health support. Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, said Republican members of both chambers haven't had a chance to caucus on any of the school-based health-center bills, but he said he expects members to fall "on both sides" of the issue.

A bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Monica Stonier, of Vancouver, asks the state Department of Health to create a working group to examine various school-based health-center models. The group also would offer a recommendation for funding centers statewide.

Yet another bill would direct the Department of Health to award grants to school-based health centers that use technology to expand students' remote access to mental- and physical-health services. The bill provides $950,000 in the first year.

Some lawmakers have spotted technical problems that need fixing: nowhere in state law are school-based health centers actually addressed, said Democratic Rep. Mari Leavitt, of University Place. A bill she's sponsoring adds statutory language giving districts explicit permission to open such centers.

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