Accountability Check: a look back at mental health services included in the FY2021-22 Jersey City Public Schools Budget

Jersey City's FY2021-22 public schools budget included concrete, promised investments in mental health services for our city's students. In this post I want to reopen the budget document that was approved last May and revisit some of that promised investment.  A budget can inform future investment but it can, and should, also be used as an accountability tool in the spirit of looking back, and asking: how much of the promised investment has been realized?

A focus on mental health services.

I first wrote about the need for mental health services in April 2020 when I wrote "Thoughts on Technology and Mental Health in Remote Paradigm of Learning."  I also wrote about it more recently in collaboration with JCPS parents and professional social workers, Jessica Taube and Divya Dodhia in our call to action to get mental health services into the schools. And the concern is acute: students lack adequate mental health services -- not after school, not before school, but embedded within the building during the school day.  The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this need; in this post, I want to connect that needs with the promised investment from the FY 2021-22 schools budget that was approved last May.

FY 2021-22 Budgeted Promises for Mental Health Services.

You can find the budget in various forms on the Business and Finance page of the JCBOE website. But I prefer this public-facing version put together by Superintendent Walker and his team last May; it's located in the May budget meeting in Board Docs.  The budget includes numerous references to this need for mental health services. For example:

On page 20 (in the Executive Summary) - references are made to:

  • expand and focus on "social-Emotional services that connect students to physical and mental health care professionals"
  • invest in more school counselors and social workers
  • expand full-time health clinics to all the high schools and stand-alone middle schools

Then, starting on page 26, we can see "Ultimate Goals" laid out that include

  • establish alternative programs to support at-risk students (page 26)
  • expanding restorative justice programs (page 27)
  • actively support the community school model (page 28)

Then, starting on page 29, we can see "Priorities" laid out that include

  • Community Response Team which "was formed to offer strength, support, consolation, and guidance to the school communities’ children and staff at their time of need. Each school has a professionally trained bereavement team to deal with unforeseen events and tragedies. In addition, certain district supervisors and coordinators are trained bereavement counselors that can be dispatched to any facility to offer further support to the schools."

Then, we see programmatic promises starting on page 38, and that's where some very concrete promises are laid out, including:

Funding Sources. 

Within the same budget document, we can see mental health services funded in part by ESSER II funds (ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) on page 70 and it includes:

  • $1,485,000 for 20 contracted social workers
  • $250,000 for social and emotional learning
  • $5,000,000 for trauma sensitive schools

We also have the first fully-funded budget in more than a decade - so there is more local school tax invested in the public schools now than in recent memory.

Actual investment - the services in our schools.

So -- where is this investment, in terms of tangible resources that have been added to the schools?

This is where it gets much harder to piece things together. Aside from combing through Public Board Docs to see recent hiring data - which can be like looking for a needle in a haystack - we can look at how some of the money has been invested using the district's "COVID-19 Spending Tracking Log" as a guide.  The $100+ million in federal ARP funding is being used and the latest tracking update - from January 2022 - is here. We can see, for instance, that:

  • $2,998,600 was spent for Reimagined Minds, a mental health services contract that has since been cancelled.
  • $300,000 has been spent on Center for Supportive Schools for community schools
  • $32,440 was spent on TTODD Educational Consulting for "Fashion Against Bullying Program"

But other than these items, it's hard to find anything in the COVID-19 tracker that touches on mental health services.

A final note: caveats must be met with a sense of acute urgency needed for our kids.

I write as a parent, and an advocate, with a sense of urgency but fully aware that caveats exist, like:

  • This district is suffering from years of structural deficits - both financially (in the form of millions of dollars gutted from annual budgets) and operationally (in the form of staff lost due to layoffs and/or firings).
  • The public school system is a huge bureaucracy that will need time to recover from years of disinvestment.
  • The COVID-19 tracker includes items related to a host of capital repairs, including boiler replacements, roof repairs, and electrical upgrades. These critical items are undoubtedly also critical -- students need a roof on their school - but the NJ Schools Development Authority (SDA) is supposed to be handling them. The NJ SDA, however, is mired in its own issues so it falls back on JCPS to manage.

These caveats can inform the depth and breadth of the challenges, but they should not serve as an excuse to delay needed investment from happening where possible or, if the investment cannot happen, explaining why it can't happen. This second point - communications and transparency - is where the district seems to fall consistently short. District leadership has full reign to be transparent about the constraints that exist. Dr. Fernandez modeled this recently when she explained why the district had to experience a second week of remote learning: she explained that 29% of staff had called out sick. But thus far, this type of clarity has been the exception, not the norm.

How you anyone - parents, caregivers, advocates - can help

  1. Consider engaging in this call to action on mental health services.
  2. Check out the FY 2021-22 budget. Are there services that matter to you that you want to know more about? If so, write to the BOE or call into a BOE meeting and ask the status of those services.
  3. Demand more transparency and clarity around why services you expect are not yet in place. Call into a board meeting - you can learn how to do that here.

Further reading:

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