Viewpoint: Schools and mental health

Editor’s note: What follows is the text of a letter sent May 21 to U.S. Senator Susan Collins. Sen. Angus King, Rep. Jared Golden, State Sen. Louis Luchini and State Reps. Brian Hubbell, Genevieve McDonald and Nicole Grohoski were each also contacted with a similar request, Gousse said, and he urges residents to also contact elected officials personally.

Dear Senator Collins:

I am writing to request your review and consideration of special education funding in our state. The challenge of balancing funding for out-of-district (“OOD”) placements and mainstream education programs, while maintaining the quality of both, is significantly and adversely impacting communities across our region, state, and nation. This issue has risen to the level of a funding crisis and there appears to be no foreseeable resolution to this problem. Consequently, small, rural communities are being forced to make unpopular choices to balance the shifting needs of both schools and communities.

As Superintendent of Schools for the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (“MDRISS”) AOS 91, I write to request increased funding, programming, and training for staff across our region of the state. Increases in state and federal funding by 25 percent over present funding levels would allow educators to close this funding gap significantly while avoiding the need to compromise existing essential programs and services.

At a minimum, Maine communities need increased funding to begin to address this educational crisis immediately.

As a public school educator for the past 37 years, I firmly believe legislation to support the education of our children with special needs is unquestionably the right thing to do. Our ongoing work to provide these essential mandated specialized education services is under threat of rising costs and diminishing resources. Providing mandated OOD placement programming, which can cost as much as $100,000 per student per year, is on an unsustainable path and needs review and support from our government leaders at all levels. In communities that do not have the fiscal ability or resources to adequately fund or sustain the trajectory of increased spending, this leads to an economic crisis. Locally, no less than three of our school district member communities (Southwest Harbor, Trenton, and Frenchboro) have been exposed to increased, unsustainable special education OOD costs which have literally emerged overnight. These costs are above and beyond those services which we plan and budget for on an annual basis.

As was brought to my attention by the Special Education Director for our school district, I ask that you consider the following contextual facts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as many as one in five Americans under age 18 experience a mental health disorder. This is one of the largest growing needs in our schools that is driving unprecedented costs.

Maine children have the highest rate of diagnosed anxiety in the country, as well as high rates of depression and suicide.

Estimates show that nearly half of all children with emotional or psychological conditions do not receive either medication or psychological services, and only 7.4 percent of adolescents report visiting with a mental health professional over the course of a year. Since the onset of these problems can be difficult to detect, and millions of families lack health insurance, children must often rely on mental health resources provided by their schools. As a result, schools have become the de facto mental health system for children in the United States.

Hospitalizations for mood disorders among children ages 17 and under grew by 68 percent between 1997 and 2011.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of no greater than 700 students per school psychologist when comprehensive mental health services are being provided. Teachers typically receive little training in dealing with mental health problems and emotional disorders;

The cost to place a student in an OOD placement program (also known as a “day treatment program”) averages between $65,000 and $70,000 per year and often can approach or exceed $100,000. The MDIRSS has had four students (grades K-12) educated in OOD placement in the past four years.

In our own school district, we require more staff, resources and training, to include: social workers, therapists, and school psychologists, in order to adequately address the identified needs of our children and to best support all our students and staff.

Although the state of Maine has recently increased funding for public school students with special needs from 40 percent to 45 percent, this level of funding does not nearly begin to approach that which is required to adequately sustain the present model for mainstream and special education programming. In the last several years our schools and communities have faced a funding roller coaster as OOD placements and rising mandated costs ebb and flow from community to community. The programs continue to be a priority for districts as they are “what’s best” for those students identified as requiring OOD placement. Unfortunately, the rising costs of these important programs are forcing communities to make choices that result in the loss of services to students and schools across the board.

I am asking for your review of current programming and funding sources and moreover your assistance and help in addressing the needs of our children and small Maine communities. More specifically, I am asking for your support for increased resources and funding which can ameliorate the unsustainable costs of providing all Maine children with the education they need and deserve. Maine’s schools are dedicated to honoring and safeguarding the tenets and principles of landmark legislation which supports free and appropriate access to public education for all children. That means fiercely advocating for adequate federal, state and local funding, and resources, to protect our special education and mainstreamed programs.

I invite you and your colleagues to visit our district and see first-hand the wonderful work being accomplished each and every day by our students and staff. I have hope that, together, we can collaborate to address the needs of all Maine students both now and in the future. Thank you for your review and consideration of my request. I look forward to hearing from you.

Marc Gousse serves as superintendent of the MDI Regional School System.

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