SMMUSD HDQTRS — A change in state law will alter the provision of mental health services to students in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District next school year, costing the district more money and altering the kinds of services it will be able to provide.

According to Sara Woolverton, the director of special education in the district, SMMUSD could be on the hook for between $1 million and $1.5 million in the 2012-13 school year for mental health services.

That’s up from $106,000 in 2010 and $850,000 in the current school year.

The increases come from a fundamental reorganization of how mental health services are provided as the state government cuts costs in an attempt to balance its ever-worsening budget.

In 2010, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut all funding to a 1984 law called Assembly Bill 3632 which mandated that county departments of mental health work with school districts to provide mental health services to students with special education plans, called IEPs, who needed additional support.

At that point, the school district was forced to contract directly with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. That meant a higher bill than in years past, but prevented any changes in service.

As of July, that is no longer an option, Woolverton said.

Assembly Bill 114, signed into law on June 30, 2011, dictates that school districts are solely responsible for ensuring that students with disabilities get the services they need after that date. That includes those formerly provided by county mental health agencies.

The money from the state to pay for some of those services will instead flow to the Special Education Local Plan Area, or SELPA based on the number of students enrolled in the SELPA districts.

SMMUSD belongs to the Tri-City SELPA, which includes Beverly Hills and Culver City.

Inexplicably, districts with a lot of students and relatively few with IEPs will see a lot more cash coming their way while others, like the Tri-City SELPA, will have to shoulder major deficits.

Officials already expect a $2 million shortage, at least half of which is expected to be carried by SMMUSD.

Right now, SMMUSD has between 50 and 60 students that are eligible for the program. Of those, 35 to 45 actually use the services, and between 15 and 20 are in residential programs, Woolverton said.

The SELPA will provide and pay for all outpatient services. Residential treatment, where students live at the place that they receive treatment and schooling, will be paid for by the districts.

Any state money not used by the SELPA for outpatient services will help offset those costs, Woolverton said.

The switch in provider does more than shift costs — it shifts the purpose of the therapy.

In the past, the Department of Mental Health was concerned with the mental and emotional health of the student, Woolverton said.

The new question is whether or not the team of people involved in the child’s education determine if the student can make progress in school without the services.

If the answer to that question is yes, the student will get treatment. If it’s no, then they won’t.

“We’re changing the focus of how we determine if they need mental health because it has to be in line with the mission,” Woolverton said.

The kinds of therapy a student can get will also have to be focused on education.

Under the SELPA-based model, students will focus on the skills they need to manage themselves and get educated rather than a traditional approach that emphasizes the emotional aspect of their problems or family issues.

That raised flags for Boardmember Jose Escarce.

“It doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of clinical mental health care involved in delivering the services,” Escarce said. “What about the people who need those services?”

“That pinpoints our biggest concern,” Woolverton replied.

Though the skill-based counseling will address some of the students’ emotional problems, the Special Education Department will have lists of resources available to parents who feel their children need more help.

The new SELPA model does have some advantages, however.

Counseling will be provided during school hours, which Woolverton hopes will encourage students to sign up who were eligible but didn’t take advantage of the services when they were outside of school hours and potentially less accessible.

The Tri-City SELPA will also be able to provide an extended day program for students who wouldn’t have enough time in the school day to get both the education they need and the mental health services.

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