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MPS board debates mental health for students

Tribune - 8/23/2023

Aug. 21—The Mesa Public Schools Governing Board on Aug. 8 voted 3-1 to renew agreements with two nonprofit mental health service providers despite skepticism and criticism from a board member and two parents.

Board member Rachel Walden, who cast the sole no vote on renewing a contract with A New Leaf and abstained from voting on renewing one with the EMPACT — Suicide Prevention Center, started the debate on the district's approach to student mental health.

"As difficult as the mental health crisis is, schools should focus on education," Walden said, arguing students would behave better and struggle less emotionally if they "were better at school."

The district should refer parents to outside services when needed, she said.

Walden also questioned the district's attention to mental health more broadly, saying its mission by law is focused on education and MPS should "stay in its lane."

Board member Kiana Sears and board president Marcie Hutchinson pushed back on the idea that schools should not facilitate mental health services for kids.

Hutchinson said the district was coordinating with the nonprofits in response to calls from the community.

One call was prompted by a Mountain View High School senior's suicide in 2019. A group of parents came to the board asking for help following that death, she said.

"The next meeting, kids came and they begged us for help. It became evident to the board that we as a district had to respond to our community and their pleas for help," Hutchinson said.

"Our families, our parents choose these services, and they do so because they are school-based," she continued.

"We need to worry not just about the physical health but the mental health of our kids, to make sure that kids are ready to learn and we have an environment where all kids can receive instruction."

Two parents backed Walden's skepticism of the contract renewals, echoing her call for the district to "stay in its lane" and pointing to the district's disappointing scores on state student achievement assessments since the pandemic.

One speaker expanded the discussion beyond the agreements at hand to the district's approach to emotional well-being more broadly, criticizing MPS for having a lower student-to-school counselor ratio than the rest of the state.

Arizona ranks at the very bottom nationally with its counselor-to-student ratio, according to data from the American School Counselor Association.

The group put the Arizona ratio in 2021 at 716-to-1. It recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.

Walden seconded this critique, saying later that school counselors don't seem to be enhancing student performance in the district.

The criticism of the district's efforts to reduce its ratio of students to counselors sparked a strong reaction from Sears.

"I sit here just pretty much outraged," she said. "We're discrediting all the work that we have done, and you as a taxpayer, in looking at the national average and doing better."

"I appreciate Mesa as a city, I appreciate our city government, for investing in wellness," she said.

Sears also criticized Walden's questioning of Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis during the discussion, saying she could have sought out information before the meeting.

Both agreements run from September 2023 through August 2024, with the option for the district to extend the contracts for up to five additional 12-month periods.

The district first entered into the agreements with A New Leaf and EMPACT in 2019.

Under the renewed relationships, the two nonprofits will provide "mental health awareness, substance abuse counseling, staff development and parenting skills training, including individual, group and family counseling services."

A memo from the district's general counsel states that consent from parents or legal guardians is required for student participation in the program.

No money changes hands directly between MPS and the nonprofits under the terms of the contracts; the district agrees to coordinate with the nonprofits and provide spaces at school for licensed health care providers to meet students and parents for services.

A New Leaf and EMPACT are responsible for collecting insurance information and billing the families' health plans for care.

Fourlis said during the meeting that giving parent's access to behavioral health services at schools significantly lowers the barriers for getting help, as parents don't have to take time off work or pull kids out of school to get them to an appointment.

They also have long-standing relationships with their local schools and trust staff members.

The agreements were originally placed on the consent agenda for a vote without discussion, but were removed for individual discussion at Walden's request.

"It seems like this is something we would have had a presentation on," Walden said during the discussion.

She added there wasn't enough information provided to board members to determine whether these were the best programs for the district.

She asked, for example, for information on the credentials of service providers, and staff clarified they would be licensed. She wanted to know how parents can opt out.

Board member Joe O'Reilly, who ultimately voted to approve the agreements with A New Leaf and EMPACT, seemed to support Walden's robust questioning and request for information, seconding a motion at one point in order "to continue discussion."


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