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Budget hearings preview: Students’ mental health a priority in 2020 session

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Mental health care in public schools, including access to more licensed counselors, is a priority for some state leaders and lawmakers going into the 2020 legislative session.

Schools are seeing more students with serious mental health conditions, State Superintendent Eric Mackey told Alabama Daily News this week. Before his time as the state’s top education official, Mackey worked as a teacher and local school superintendent.

“We have certainly gotten better at recognizing the need, but from my vantage, I would say the need is increasing,” he said. “There are simply more mental health issues than there were 10 years ago.” 

It’s a subject he’s discussed with mental and public health leaders in the state.

“We all see this happening, we’re trying to figure out what has contributed to it,” Mackey said. 

The legislative session begins Feb. 4, but several of the state’s largest agencies will have budget hearings before lawmakers in the State House on Jan. 22 and 23. The annual hearings are a chance for agency leaders to highlight the work they’re doing, their priorities and make their cases for more funding in the next budget year.

Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, said the hearings also allow lawmakers to hold state agencies accountable for their spending.

“It’s a chance for us to say, ‘Here are the dollars you are given, how have you used them and how have they benefited the state?’ Collins said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Collins is on the House education budget committee and chairs the Education Policy Committee. She said mental health services and expanded partnerships between the Alabama State Department of Education and the Department of Mental Health will be a priority in the upcoming session.

Collins said if considering most of the student-perpetrated school shootings in recent years, “at the base of it is a mental health issue.” 

Mackey said his department has three mental health initiatives that it will be requesting money to expand. The three work together to address students’ needs.

The first is more mental health counselors. Mackey said the Alabama State Department of Education works with the Alabama Department of Mental Health to get clinicians in schools, but more are needed.

The second piece is training for K-12 personnel, including teachers, coaches and support staff, in “mental health first aid.” Like first aid for physical wounds, many people need to be able to apply mental health first aid, Mackey said.

“It’s how to identify a child who might be in crisis, give support, and get them to someone more qualified to handle the issue,” Mackey said.

Some of that training is already occurring. Thirty educators were trained during the summer and took information back to their schools to share with their colleagues.

The third piece of the proposal is direct money for school systems to hire case managers.

“Students may have problems because their family is in crisis, they may not have food at home, there may be abuse,” Mackey said. Case managers could respond to those situations, a task that currently can fall on classroom teachers.

Collins also said suicide among students is a growing concern.

“I would love to see us working with and addressing the issues that are causing that,” she said.

Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among people age 10 to 24 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention, accounting for 19% of deaths. Homicides accounted for 14%. 

Lynn Beshear is commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

“We are excited about the interest that officials and schools are showing surrounding the Alabama Department of Mental Health and the Alabama State Department of Education’s School-based Mental Health Collaboration,” Beshear told Alabama Daily News. “We hope it will be expanded and continue.”

The Jan. 22 hearings are expected to include the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Development, K-12 education, the community college system and the four-year university system. An education policy consultant, HCM Strategies, will also make a presentation.

In higher education funding, expect more conversations about allocating money based on schools’ performances.

“I’m looking forward to implementing outcome-based funding where we will challenge higher ed institutions with bonus money if they hit defined targets to improve, for example, graduation rates, number of pell grant students, increasing the number of minority students, etc,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the Senate education budget committee chairman. 

Separately, the House education budget committee, led by Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, will have its own budget hearings with education agencies on Jan. 9 and 10. An agenda for those meetings was’t available Thursday morning.

Jan. 23 presentations will include the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the departments of corrections, public health, mental health and Medicaid.

“All of them will be putting forth their best arguments for more money,” Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said. He’s the Senate General Fund committee chairman.

Increases in available money are expected in both the General Fund and education budgets in 2021, the fiscal year that begins in October.  The drafting of those budgets begins in the governor’s office. The Alabama constitution requires the governor to submit her budget proposals to the Legislature by the second meeting day of the session.

“As the governor prepares for this coming legislative session, she is focusing on several areas, such as workforce development, education reform, the state’s prison system and access to quality health care,” Gina Maiola, spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey, recently said. “Gov. Ivey looks forward to tackling these pressing items and others through a continued, strong bipartisan effort. She wants our state’s leaders to remain responsible with the hard-earned taxpayer dollars by taking a fiscally conservative approach, which will create budgets that work in the best interest of all Alabamians. Discussions are ongoing in these final weeks leading up to the session, and Gov. Ivey certainly is ready to keep Alabama’s great momentum moving forward.”

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