At its Aug. 17 meeting, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors bristled at the suggestion that they were to blame for a battle over who will ultimately be responsible for providing state-mandated mental health services for the county's most emotionally disturbed school-age youth-services the county was relieved of by a Sacramento judge last month after the state fell short in its duty to fund those services.
At the Tuesday meeting, attended by parents, school district officials and mental-health advocates, the supervisors were set to vote on whether to cut the county-run mental-health program and its 38 staff positions entirely, something they argue the judge's ruling gave them the go-ahead to do. If they cut the program, it would force the county's 42 school districts to take over the care of roughly 1,200 of their most troubled students.
After a morning of emotional public testimony, however, Supervisor Ron Roberts-who's also running for mayor of San Diego-said the difficult vote should be delayed until mid-October, an option to which his colleagues unanimously agreed. In the interim, county and school officials say they'll lobby the state for the money needed to keep the program going.
The program, enacted by state legislation in the '90s, is one of dozens of unfunded state mandates-local programs the state legally requires be in place, but doesn't always provide money for.
In February, San Diego County sued the state, arguing it had failed to adequately reimburse the county to the tune of $30 million for services performed under AB 2726, a 1996 piece of legislation that says mentally ill school-age children are entitled to whatever mental-health services they require to keep them in school, whether it's counseling or residential psychiatric treatment. Underlying AB 2726 is the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1984, which says that all school-age children are entitled to a free public education regardless of whether they suffer from mental illness or a physical disability. Like AB 2726, IDEA says emotionally disturbed public-school students should get appropriate mental health care to ensure that they will benefit from their education.
By law, the state must reimburse the counties for those services, which, in San Diego County, cost between $8 million and $10 million a year. Statewide, AB 2726 services cost $130 million annually.
Three other counties-Contra Costa, Orange and Sacramento-joined San Diego County's lawsuit.
In July, Sacramento County Judge Jeffrey Gunther sided with the four counties, ruling that the lack of state funding means the counties no longer must provide the services. At the time of the judge's ruling, the 2004-05 state budget included only $1,000 for AB 2726 programs statewide-the same amount provided last year. From that fund, San Diego County received a check for $12.
When asked why the Legislature didn't provide full funding, given San Diego County's lawsuit had already been filed when the budget was being discussed, H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the state's finance department, said that given the state's current fiscal crisis, “it appears the Legislature's view is that they did not want to provide funding for these programs.”
San Diego Unified School District spokesperson Peri Lynn Turnbull said the judge's ruling didn't take into account $100 million-$69 million in federal funds and $31 million in special-education funds-available this year for AB 2726 programs. County education officials believe the $100 million qualifies as the “good faith” funding the judge's ruling demanded of the state. Despite the $100 million, which will be divvied up among the state's 58 counties, San Diego County would still have to come up with $4 million of its own money to cover AB 2726 programs between now and next July-something supervisors aren't willing to do.
“We can't go farther in the hole than $30 million,” said board chair Dianne Jacob, adding, “The issue is not about children being served; the only issue is who's going to do it and who's going to pay. I can tell you it's not going to be the county of San Diego.”
On Aug. 9, Jean Shepard, director of the county's Health and Human Services Agency, sent a letter to County Superintendent of Schools Rudy Castruita and the superintendents of the San Diego and Poway school districts, informing them that, given Gunther's ruling, come Sept. 30, the county “will cease providing mental health services” under AB 2726 and would no longer accept referrals to the program beyond mid-August. The school districts would be given the opportunity, the letter said, to contract services from the county, meaning the mental health program would continue seamlessly only if the school districts promised to foot the bill. A subsequent letter informed county school districts that if they chose to contract with the county, they must, by Oct. 15, prove that they'd be able to pay the county for its services for the long-term.
At the meeting Tuesday, however, those who spoke on behalf of the schools emphasized that, unlike the county, which has had a mental-healthcare system in place for two decades, schools lacked the resources to take over the county program. They also, like the county, face severe budget deficits.
“We cheered when you got this [court] decision,” San Diego Unified School District Trustee Katherine Nakamura told the board, noting that school districts, too, shoulder the costs of unfunded state mandates. But, said an emotional Nakamura, “we didn't realize you were going to turn around and slap our children.”
County Counsel John Sansone said the supervisors chose to make this particular mandate the subject of the lawsuit because they knew services to the students would have to continue even if the county stopped providing them. “The Board of Supervisors wanted to make sure that if... the court said that the county no longer had to provide these services, that the services would, in fact, continue to be provided by somebody,” Sansone said in an interview with CityBeat last week. “If not the county, it's got to be somebody else.”
A recurring message from members of the public at the board meeting Tuesday was that if the school districts and the county didn't work together to come up with a solution feasible for both parties, “somebody else” could end up being the juvenile justice system.
“This is a discriminated-against group of kids,” said Joan Landguth, a licensed clinical social worker who advocates on behalf of AB 2726 students. “Everybody says bad kids shouldn't be in the classroom, but nobody says where they should be.... The kids we're really talking about here are kids who have behavior problems, and the schools can't manage them; the families can't manage them, and those are the kids who are going to be left with no place to go.”
Or, as one speaker put it, it's the difference between prevention dollars now or intervention dollars later.
State Attorney General Bill Lockyer has yet to appeal the judge's ruling, but if he plans to do so, he must do it by Sept. 2.