Deep in Gov. Jerry Brown's May revision of his January budget is a possible solution to a major conflict over funding mental health services for special education students.
Brown this week proposed that schools, not counties, be responsible for paying for mental health services, which include counseling, medication management and treatment in a residential facility. Using a complex formula Brown has come up with $390 million, including $69 million in federal special education funds, to help schools pay for those services.
"We think that the program is sufficiently funded in 2011-12 with most of the dollars going to the school district level," said Diane Cummins, special adviser to Brown on "realignment," the process the governor is using to try to push state services down to the local level.
Cummins said from now on, school districts will be able to decide on their own whether to contract with counties to provide mental health services as they have in the past, or to provide them on their own.
School advocates reacted cautiously to Brown's solution to what has turned into a major legal battle between the state and local school districts.
"It is better than the original proposal, which was to delete funding," said Debra Brown, a legislative advocate for the California School Board Association. "But we are still uncertain about the details and about how it will work."
For the last 25 years, under legislation known as AB 3632, counties were charged with providing mental health and residential treatment services for children.
The services are specified in the "Individual Education Program" drawn up for every special education student, as mandated under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.
California was the only state in the nation where counties, not schools, were mandated to provide education-related mental health services. The arrangement began to unravel last October when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $133 million in funds that counties relied on to pay for what are often very expensive services, effectively suspending the county mandate as well. His action triggered two lawsuits against the state.
His veto threw the delivery of mental health services to schoolchildren into a state of uncertainty. "It caused a lot of confusion at the local level," Brown said.
Her organization, along with the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Manhattan Beach Unified District, filed a lawsuit, asking for the county mandate to be restored. But in February, the judge in the case upheld Schwarzenegger's veto of the county funds.
Sue Ann Salmon Evans, an attorney with Dannis Woliver Kelley, the firm that worked on the lawsuit, said Gov. Brown's proposal in his May budget revise "answers some questions, but I don't know if it solves the problem."
Under the 1984 law, she said, the system had worked reasonably well, depending on the county, and everyone's responsibilities were clearly spelled out. Among other responsibilities, counties were required to make assessments and manage the cases of students.
"We are trying to figure out who will be responsible for these duties going forward," she said.
In the meantime, the school boards she represents will continue to petition the California Supreme Court to overturn Schwarzenegger's elimination of the mandate for counties to provide mental health services.