Lawmakers urge fixes for children’s mental health program

‘We’re driving towards a cliff’

By: - January 21, 2022 9:53 am

Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, walks into Parental Rights Education Action meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana on November 1, 2021.

After hearing concerns from lawmakers about negative effects on children, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen said the problems with a program that delivers mental health services to students in public schools will be ironed out by February.

Arntzen made the statement after several Democratic members of the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee said Thursday they were worried the program’s transition was already leaving children behind and would continue to do so.

“This just sounds like a train wreck,” said Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings.

“It just seems like we’re driving towards a cliff,” said Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, D-Missoula.

“It sounds like there’s no backup plan,” said Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena.

The $2.2 million “bridge” funding the Montana Legislature allocated this year for the transition has been spent down.

Starting Feb. 1, schools need to be able to submit checks into a new accounting system, according to the Montana Association of School Business Officials. But the new system still isn’t in place, and fewer school districts are using the program.

In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers directed the Office of Public Instruction and Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to figure out how to deliver the Comprehensive School and Community Treatment Program after a federal change meant the state needed to provide hard matching funds rather than certify a soft match. But the transition has been fraught with complications, and some schools are looking at other options.

Mike Waterman, head of business services for Bozeman Public Schools, said his district may hit pause on CSCT and find a different way to serve students. Waterman, who served as spokesperson at the meeting for school districts, told the committee that a necessary memorandum of understanding had been worked out with much collaboration, but accounting guidance from OPI was “a deal breaker” for Bozeman given the added administrative burdens and possible related costs.

“Frankly, it’s a stumbling block for our district and others as well,” said Waterman, who also noted financial risk is a concern.

Jay Phillips, with OPI, said the department has been working hard to address issues raised by schools, and he believes most of the difficulties schools have are about where to find the money, which hadn’t been in their budgets before, not about administrative matters. In response to schools, he said OPI had changed some earlier requirements to recommendations and adjusted its processes, and the only requirements now are to provide a hard match, certify the funds are from a non-federal source, and provide a check.

McNally said she was pleased that the Office of Public Instruction was trying to work out the problems with the new system. However, she said the number of teams providing services to students had fallen from 268 in 2021 to 193 and likely was continuing to fall, and she wanted assurance more schools weren’t going to drop out of the program because of a snarled process.

“This is a case study in how to take an important and valuable, critical mental health resource for kids and blow it up,” McNally said. Earlier in the day, the committee had heard that youth are depressed and suicide rates need to be addressed. “We have a real problem here, and we are taking one of the better programs and making it unusable.”

Tenenbaum said he agreed. He said he also wondered if the situation would impact all schools equally or if it might affect some areas more than others.

Waterman said his larger district is looking at other options and has the infrastructure to pursue an alternate model. But he said rural schools may have fewer choices.

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, said the number of school districts not using the program had actually started dropping several years earlier. He said he wanted to understand what was driving the trend prior to the changed requirement in funding.

Adam Meier, head of the Health Department, said remote learning is one of the factors that has driven the trend down more recently because CSCT is most applicable in a school setting. He also said some schools are offering alternatives, and options in communities may be part of it, but the trend also predated his start at DPHHS earlier this year.

Chairman Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said it might not have been the best decision to bring the Office of Public Instruction in to help find a way to deliver services under the new federal requirement. Before the change, the Health Department had certified a soft match from the state to Medicaid, but lawmakers roped in OPI to help with the transition because it works with schools.

Stafman said many parties agreed OPI was working hard on a solution for schools. However, he said he wanted to hear directly from Arntzen about a timeline because the buck stops with her: “And I want to know when this is going to be fixed.”

After his question, Arntzen, a Republican, gave lengthy remarks (see sidebar), but she did not answer his question. Stafman asked it again, and Arntzen confirmed with Phillips that it would be ready by February. Stafman said he hoped that would be the case.

“I’m optimistic that by February, this problem is going to be solved, and I pray that that’s the case,” Stafman said.

Remarks from Superintendent Elsie Arntzen in response to Chair Stafman’s question about when problems will be fixed:

As state superintendent, I do carry the weight of making sure that education happens in our state. But we also know that education can have impediments, and those impediments are indeed where we are currently. And I said that in my opening. We are in very uncharted, uncertain times. We do not know what is going to happen. I can give you data on test scores but I don’t really know what is going to happen with the mental health and the aptitude for great education, for children to sponge in, for teachers to be able to really reflect coming from an unmasked or a masked situation. This is something that’s really important to us. Not just to us at the state level and the good people that you heard from. From the school district point of view, from any association that deals with education. And from your level as well. You gave us a job to do, and we are embracing it. But this has been a change in a funding mechanism.

We have given out an opportunity to use those precious COVID dollars to be able to bridge after the bridge funding has been depleted. There is that but it has a short shelf life. By 2024, that opportunity runs out. And it’s very, very permanable at the school district level. So a big school district is what Mr. Waterman represents in Bozeman. The challenges are great. But those dollars are there. What I seek from you is helping us deliver those services. If you see that third-party providers right now are challenged with staffing, that staffing indeed, is there a way that you can aid in serving those school districts in a model that’s now changed? But it’s not just a soft match of offering a room and lighting and an environment where students and families can come together. Now it’s a hard match of money. And if I can ask of you to really understand, can we serve more children with more money? Can we serve more children with less regulation? Can we serve more children and where we don’t know because we are … uncertain, I’m asking that we need your help. We’ve come in front of you. And I asked to be part of this. I asked that we do share with your committee. I also am asking the education committee for also seeking aid and help in this.

Those regulations are showing that they are as minimal as can possibly be so that we can suffice the federal government. And we are asking that those regulations be a recommendation, not just a firm line in the sand. I disagree it is not necessarily a train wreck because of the regulation. It is a train wreck for the future if we don’t partner together to find solutions to seek that. If we had gone another way where they had to do more accounting on every single thing, it would have been burdensome. And I understand the legality of the law. We wanted to make sure that it was the less impact to schools. What we are finding right now though, school districts are reticent. They’re cautious. If third party provider MOUs are old … let’s revitalize those. If there is less staff in that third party professional view, let’s see how we can aid that. But we are doing everything we can, and we can always do more. Government can always serve more to make sure that our children are being served.

Source: Video recording posted to Montana Legislature website. Roughly 12:52: https://sg001-harmony.sliq.net/00309/Harmony/en/PowerBrowser/PowerBrowserV2/20220120/-1/43747#agenda_

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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