By Rachel Christian
Strengthening mental health services in public schools became a national point of conversation after a shooting in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead in February.
State legislators took note, appropriating millions to facilitate a list of new mental health-related mandates. It was part of a larger $400 million bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March that includes new requirements for school resource officers, school hardening measures and more.
Osceola County School District recently received its cut of funds from the state totaling just over $1.62 million.
Officials met Tuesday to discuss how to spend the money and explored ways to generate revenue in case the extra funds get cut next year.
Highlights from the district plan include:
- Funds will pay salaries for two licensed mental health counselors, 11 school social workers, a clerical assistant for data reporting and Medicaid reimbursements, a student services coordinator and two school psychologists.
- Funding will also be used for a $25,000 health records system, $49,699 on professional development and $100,000 to cover uninsured students who are deemed at-risk and in need of services.
- A social worker will be placed at each high school and alternative school in the county. Social workers will also be required to work more days at middle and multi-level schools.
- Charter schools will receive $296,178 of the $1.62 million allocation.
- All new expenditures are not being funded by any other source.
That final point was a concern for superintendent Debra Pace, who said it was important to secure other revenue streams. She noted that Medicaid reimbursements are an underutilized way for the district to capture funds.
“We believe over time we may be able to recoup enough Medicaid funding so that even if the mental health funding from the state goes away – because we never know if that’s a recurring element or not – we would be able to sustain and support the staff without an impact on the operational budget,” Pace said.
The paperwork-intensive process is similar to how doctor offices bill Medicaid for patients who are insured through the government health care program.
Schools can seek reimbursement for certain services, like therapy and behavioral evaluations, and Medicaid will compensate part of the cost through its certified student match program.
Supervisor of Student Services Elizabeth Lane said the district has been doing this for several years, but is in the process of exploring software programs that would make it faster and easier to process more paperwork.
When it comes to getting students the help they need, new mental health professionals will continue working closely with the district’s 14 community partners to refer parents to outside agencies that can provide more intensive mental health treatment, Lane said.
School social workers can then follow up with the agencies and parents to make sure students are improving.
The school district may face a list of new mental health mandates, but Pace and Lane both agreed that Osceola is ahead of the curve compared to other counties. The district already implemented many of the mental health standards outlined in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas years ago.
Lane said that proactive approach will make it much easier for schools to comply with the new regulations by the August 1 deadline.
“We’ve been building this infrastructure for students for quite some time,” Lane said. “This additional state money just allows us to expand those services even more.”