San Diego County Board Unanimously Votes To Eliminate Funding for Children’s Mental Health Program
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to end county funding for a $17.6 million state-mandated mental health program for schoolchildren with mental illnesses, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The program, as well as 38 mental health positions, will be eliminated on Sept. 30 "unless the county and the 42 local school districts can agree on how to fund the program and who will operate it," the Union-Tribune reports (Gao, San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/18). The board's vote could encourage other counties to follow suit and challenge other state-mandated programs.
About 1,200 children with severe emotional illnesses are enrolled in the program, which the county has subsidized with $29 million annually over the past four years. The state fiscal year 2004-2005 budget includes $100 million for mental health services for special-education students statewide. However, counties' actual cost for such programs is estimated at $130 million (California Healthline, 8/17). San Diego County officials said the state is providing the county about $6 million a year less than the programs cost (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/18).
The county will stop taking referrals for mental health services immediately, but officials have said they would extend the program through Nov. 30 if the school districts covered the cost during that period and assumed responsibility for locating long-term funding (California Healthline, 8/17). Officials said the school districts would need to supply the county with $4.1 million to cover the program's cost through November.
County officials said school districts are federally required to guarantee a "free, appropriate education" to special education students. Although the school districts have said they "have neither the expertise nor the money" to run the program over the long term, they are expected to accept the county's offer to extend the program through November, the Union-Tribune reports. The county and school districts plan to use the extended deadline to lobby state lawmakers to secure adequate permanent funding for the program.
The "fate of the program might be determined by the courts," as county officials have said that a legal victory last month against the state relieved the county of having to operate the program and indicated that the state or the school districts would have to subsidize the program to maintain it, the Union-Tribune reports (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/18). Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Gunther in July ruled that San Diego County has the right to refuse to pay for the program, which is protected by federal law from being eliminated by the state. Gunther ruled that state lawmakers violated the state constitution by ordering the county to establish a program without providing sufficient funds to operate it (California Healthline, 8/17). Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) has until Sept. 21 to appeal the ruling but has not decided whether to take legal action to prevent the county from eliminating funding for the program, a spokesperson for Lockyer said.
Rudy Castruita, county superintendent of schools, who has been lobbying Lockyer to file an appeal, said, "I think there is a difference of legal perspective. I think eventually the courts are going to have to deal with that."
Castruita said that even if the program is extended through November, school districts will still not have adequate time to assume permanent control over the program, possibly leading to a disruption in service for special education students (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/18). He added that the extension should serve to allow school and county officials to "really go to Sacramento and let them know that we're serious in San Diego about not having mandated services that are not fully funded" (Phelps, KPBS News, 8/17).
Roxie Jackson, executive director of special education for San Diego City Schools, said, "It really is up to the state," adding, "We have a lot of work to do."
Board Chair Dianne Jacob said, "The issue is not about the kids being served. They have to be served. The issue is who is going to do it" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/18).