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Wyoming school districts are hiring fewer mental health staff, according to LSO report

Wyoming Tribune-Eagle - 6/18/2024

CHEYENNELaramie County School District 1 had the biggest decline in hired mental health staff positions last year, and that trend is widespread in school districts across Wyoming.

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee heard testimony from stakeholders on the status of mental health care in public schools during their Thursday meeting in Laramie. Matt Wilmarth, senior school finance analyst at the Legislative Service Office, told lawmakers school districts are hiring fewer mental health professionals under the current K-12 school funding model.

The school funding model is a block grant provided by the state to fund all 48 public school districts. The nature of the block grant allows school districts to spend state funds as they see fit.

During the past 13 years, school districts have hired fewer mental health positions than the number that was allocated in the K-12 funding model, Wilmarth said. In 2013-14, school districts hired 15.5 fewer mental health positions than what was allocated; in 2023-24, that gap grew to 83.2 positions.

The LSO report revealed that in the 2023-24 school year, some school districts shifted some paid school nurses from K-12 funding model funds to special education funds, which are fully reimbursed by the state. This shift opened up more funding from the K-12 model for other expenditures, such as teacher salaries.

“So, they’re playing games?” asked Education Committee co-Chair Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper.

“Mr. Chairman, I think they’re just utilizing the special education reimbursement and block grant dollars to their best ability,” Wilmarth said. “It also might be a reporting error; I don’t know.”

LCSD1 “saw a dramatic decrease” in the number of non-special-education mental health positions, Wilmarth said. He said he believes this was one of the districts that moved its nurses to special education funding.

“I don’t know if that’s right or wrong,” Wilmarth said. “But that was the observation.”

Some school nurses are splitting their time between helping special education and non-special-ed students. They fill out a time log to capture minutes used to assist special education students, so that part of their salary is reimbursed by the state, Willmarth said.

Lawmakers quickly became concerned over this split in working hours for school nurses, jumping from special needs to non-special-needs students.

“I feel like what we see here is the proclivity of everything to get muddied very quickly,” said Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne.

Brown said this was a clear result of the Legislature’s failure to fully adopt its recalibration of the school funding model in 2020, which is done once every five years. The last recalibration adopted by the Legislature was in 2010.

“We have a lot of people involved in the K-12 mental health stuff that we don’t put money into the model for,” Brown said. “We’ve shifted away from our priorities as to what the 2005 recalibration looks like, and the school districts are having to adjust as they see fit.”

That failure to adopt an updated school funding model also is the subject of an ongoing bench trial in state district court here in Cheyenne. The case was filed against the state by the Wyoming Education Association.

Mental health improves learning

Park County School District 1 Superintendent Jay Curtis said there is a strong link between improved access to mental health services and academic success in students. High school graduation rates have significantly improved in his district since the adoption of Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education).

Project AWARE is funded through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant. This grant supplements existing mental health services in a community and removes barriers to mental health services, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. These barriers include transportation to appointments, stigma around mental health and costs for treatment.

Powell recorded its highest five-year average graduation rate of 92% since the implementation of Project AWARE services, Curtis said. Students reported in a survey that they gained a better understanding of how to treat their mental health issues and find help through this program.

“We cannot expect (students) to learn if they are struggling with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation,” Curtis said. “These are real things that our kids are facing at unprecedented levels.”

He added that more and more businesses are realizing mental health treatment is a community problem, not a school problem. Partnerships formed within the community, he said, are contributing to increased access to mental health services.

WDE was awarded the SAMHSA grant in August 2020, and allocated it to three Wyoming school districts, including PCSD1. The program has since expanded to 13 school districts, through the use of two additional grants and American Rescue Plan funds.

Dustin Brown with Project AWARE said students faced with life challenges and social situations entered the program in the 30th, 40th and 50th percentile of student performance. After four to four-and-a-half months in the program, those same students jumped up into 80th and 90th percentiles.

“We know that Wyoming Project AWARE is proving successful,” Brown said.

Students are different today

Both teachers and students are facing increased levels of burnout in the classroom, said Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie. The rise in mental health issues has made it difficult for students to engage in the lesson and teachers to direct the classroom, he added. It’s a new situation where both the teacher and the student “are not enjoying their participation in school.”

“They don’t feel like it’s worth their time,” Rothfuss said. “They have poor morale, negative behavior — those are the kinds of themes we’re hearing.”

Teachers are leaving the profession largely due to burnout, he added, as the state adopts bills that increase pressure on academic results.

“That leads to stress, (but) it also led to performance,” Rothfuss said. “So, we got better test scores, and angrier students and angrier teachers.”

Lawmakers asked stakeholders what the underlying causes of increased mental health issues are in students.

“What is the root cause of all of this?” asked Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle. “I mean, we’re seeing this as epidemic levels in our schools and our society.”

Curtis said he theorized there is a direct correlation between advancing technology and the rise of social media. If he could go back in time, he wouldn’t have given his own children a cellphone “until they were ready to go out into the world.”

“If I had a magic wand … I would eradicate (social media) from the face of the planet,” Curtis said. “The more that I’ve read is the use of technology is creating different neural pathways that did not exist in my generation. It is changing the way our brains work. It is changing our attention spans.”

Unfortunately, there is little the state or school districts can do to restrict phone usage in the classroom, he added, since it risked violating federal law.

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