San Diego County To Vote on Eliminating Children’s Mental Health Program
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to vote on a proposal that would end county funding for a $17.6 million state-mandated mental health program for schoolchildren, potentially leading to "drastic consequences," as school districts "scramble for a transition plan," the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. About 1,200 children with severe emotional illnesses are enrolled in the program in San Diego County.
According to the Union-Tribune, the state has "failed to provide sufficient funding" for 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. However, counties' actual cost for such programs is estimated at $130 million, the Union-Tribune reports.
Acting county Mental Health Director Alfredo Aguirre said eliminating the program would result in the elimination of 38 jobs, including 18 layoffs. If the board votes to terminate the program, the county will stop taking referrals for mental health services immediately and will cease program operations Sept. 30.
County officials said 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 (Gao, San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/16). 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, 7/15).
According to the Union-Tribune, the board's vote could "set a precedent for other counties to follow suit," possibly leading to "dozens" of other challenges to state-mandated programs. Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) is considering appealing the Superior Court ruling.
County officials on Friday said they would extend the program through November if county school districts covered the cost during that period and assumed responsibility for locating long-term funding. County officials said school districts are federally required to guarantee a "free, appropriate" education to special-education students. According to the Union-Tribune, funding the program could cause small school districts to "face bankruptcy" and larger districts to make "further budget cuts in general education." Board members asked school district officials to respond to their offer by the end of this week.
School district officials said that they "simply do not have the medical expertise that the county's mental health staff has to deal with children with severe emotional disorders," the Union-Tribune reports.
Joseph Schwartzberg, senior director of the North Coastal Special Education Local Plan Area, said, "We are talking about over 1,000 disabled students and an infrastructure that took the county 20 years to develop and put into place." Carol Bartz, director of the North Inland Special Education Local Plan Area, said the vote would "just pu[t] the schools in a real bad spot that's going to hurt kids."
County Board of Supervisors Chair Dianne Jacob said, "We came to a point where enough is enough. It's the fiscal responsibility of the state to fund (the program), and they have failed in their responsibility" (San Diego Union-Tribune, 8/16).