Board of Education confronts new mental health costs

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Mental health services previously paid by the county have been shifted to the district. The board also explores ways to cut nursing costs.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District will be on the hook for approximately $1 million in special education expenses previously paid for by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health for a period of approximately five months.

The school district’s Board of Education discussed the sobering news about the special education funding at its regular meeting last Thursday. Also, the board has come up with a new job description for Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) as the district attempts to provide better health services next school year.

Federal law requires state and local governments to pay for counseling and other mental health services for students with mental or emotional disabilities to keep them in school. Assembly Bill 3632, passed in 1984, required county mental health departments to pay these expenses for schools districts, but that changed in October when former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut $133 million in state funding for mental health. School districts made it to the end of January without having to foot the costs thanks to $76 million in federal funding, but starting Feb. 1 that expense was shifted to the school districts. School districts will have to continue paying for special education costs until June 30.

Jeanne Davis, who is part of a committee negotiating a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the county mental health department on behalf of the local school district and the districts of Beverly Hills and Culver City to determine how much they will pay, told the board, “School districts, by law, are the payer of last resort. We’re campaigning to point out the plight of the district and request assistance.”

School districts will be charged based on the cost of the services rendered. Santa Monica-Malibu has 15 students at residential treatment centers, with 59 students receiving outpatient services. The board approved a draft of the MOU, which would have the district pay $200,000 per month between Feb. 1 and June 30, as well as a monthly $50,000 administrative fee to the department of mental health. The vote was 5-1, with Board member Laurie Lieberman absent and Vice President Ben Allen voting against it.

Allen said he was “not under the impression that school districts have been dealt with in particularly good faith on this matter.”

The county’s decision to shift the expenses for mental health services that are required by law to the school districts had put the SMMUSD “between a rock and a hard place,” Allen said. “It’s another follow-on effect of the budget crisis and everyone seems to be kicking the can down the road in terms of responsibilities.”

Superintendent Tim Cuneo said that when the MOU expires after June 30, the district will negotiate a new agreement with the county in an attempt to bring down the costs.

District struggles with balancing health care vs. budget

The board also discussed the new job classification, LVNs, developed by a health task force appointed by Cuneo to study ways to reduce health costs within the district. The district gave layoff notices to more than five nurses at its March 8 meeting, which it can rescind by May 15, in order to have the flexibility to possibly replace the nurses with LVNs or health clerks.

The district currently employs 11 registered nurses with extensive training and master’s degrees. LVNs only have 12 to 18 months of training, but command lower salaries than RNs. Due to their lesser training LVNs cannot perform all the same tasks as RNs and would have to be supervised for some tasks. The district is trying to reduce health costs while simultaneously having more medically trained personnel on staff, even if they are not as highly trained as RNs. The health task force is expected to conclude its work in April and give recommendations to the board.

SMMUSD parent Lee Jones told the board she felt the committee’s work was being rushed, as it consisted of volunteers and had only been meeting for about a month.

“It’s unrealistic to expect there to be a recommendation from the group that is at the level it should be,” Jones said.

BOE Vice President Allen acknowledged that the process may be rushed, and suggested that the district could rescind some of the nurse layoffs and hire two LVNs for next year to allow the task force more time to study the subject.

BOE member Ralph Mechur, who was the only member to vote against the layoffs at the previous board meeting, said the board should not let its concern over budget issues lead it into accepting lesser care for its students.

“We need to be able to not allow this constant hammering [about budget issues]Š to become the new norm, where we say it’s OK to have less because we’ve just been beaten down about it,” he said.