Lawmakers begin debate on funding mental health services to schools

Rival plans for managing and funding mental health services for special education students drew a mix of reaction Wednesday from county officials, school representatives and family advocates at legislative hearing in Sacramento.

The AB 3632 program, which provides a variety of medical and intervention services to more than 20,000 special education students statewide, has been under a cloud of uncertainty since an October veto by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that eliminated about $133 million in funding and a mandate on counties to provide the care.

Although officials at the California Department of Education later found some replacement funds to keep the program going, the veto provoked a wall of litigation that remains largely unresolved as counties, school districts and parents scramble to sort out what agencies will be providing what services for which students.

A joint budget panel of the state Assembly took up the question Wednesday, looking more closely at the current landscape as well as plans for resolving the problem from Gov. Jerry Brown and the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst.

Brown's proposal would make no funding changes for the 2010-11 fiscal year and would also carry through on the mandate suspension imposed by Schwarzenegger.

Starting with the 2011-12 fiscal year, however, Brown would reinstate the state mandate on counties to provide the care and would support the services using a combination of state realignment funds, federal special education money and Proposition 63 taxes - a measure approved by voters in 2004 that levies a 1 percent income tax on personal income of more than $1 million for mental health services.

Starting in 2012-13, the governor would provide additional $104 million in realignment funds to counties with the same responsibilities without an option to claim mandate reimbursements.

The LAO said Wednesday that Brown's plan won't provide enough money to cover county costs - both ongoing and past claims - in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

The analyst also questions whether the use of Proposition 63 tax money - which can only be used to support mental health services - was an appropriate replacement for mandate reimbursements, which are general fund money.

The LAO also recommended that lawmakers consider realigning the program so that schools - not county mental health agencies - were responsible for providing the services called out in student Individual Education Plans.

A number of advocacy groups appeared before the panel Wednesday - all of which wanted the services to continue but there was little agreement over how to carry that out.

School officials were in support of the governor's proposal to keep the service providers at the county level. Representatives of counties said they mostly supported the LAO's realignment proposal.

We are basically in agreement that the children need these services," said Susan Rajlal, from the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department. "However, 3632 really is an educational program and we believe that many of the services that are provided are not all mental health services."

Meanwhile, Kurt Leptich, chairman for the Coalition for Adequate Funding for Special Education and who also oversees the special education services for 17 school districts in Imperial County - said his group strongly supports Gov. Brown's proposal. He also said that the Schwarzenegger veto and subsequent lawsuits has resulted in "generalized insecurity" throughout the system.

"School districts do not have the capacity, the expertise or the infrastructure to provide mental health service," he said. "Unless resolved, the new costs on districts will result in mid-year cuts to schools."

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