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Long Island school superintendents seek ways to pay for mental health programs

State senators Kenneth LaValle, left, and Sen. John

State senators Kenneth LaValle, left, and Sen. John Flanagan, and Assembly members Anthony Palumbo, Joseph DeStefano, Steve Englebright, Doug Smith, Andrew Gabarino and Michael Fitzpatrick at the annual Suffolk County education legislative breakfast in Middle Island on Saturday. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The top priority for many superintendents across Long Island this coming budget season is figuring out how to cover the cost of addressing their students’ mental health needs while they face proposed minimal increases in state school aid, dozens of educators said at a forum on Saturday.

“Ten years ago, [mental health] wasn’t even a blip on the radar,” said Charles Dedrick, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “One of the messages that we’re carrying around the state is that it’s important to keep in mind that this is not just a school issue — this is a community issue, this is a family issue.” 

A Journal of the American Medical Association report released last year said there were 47% more suicides among teens ages 15 to 19 in 2017 than there were in 2000, and there were more cases of anxiety, depression, social media use and self-inflicted injuries among adolescents.

Dedrick on Saturday explained Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed foundation aid increases for next school year to a group of 300  Suffolk County educators, board members, lawmakers, parents and students at the annual Regional Legislative Breakfast in Middle Island.

The proposed 2020-21 fiscal year increase for school aid statewide is $578.5 million, the smallest increase since 2014-15, according to Dedrick’s presentation. Long Island public schools would receive a total hike of about $76.8 million under the proposal, according to the Association of School Business Officials New York.

Every year the school representatives from districts across Suffolk County meet with their state lawmakers to kick off Long Island’s lobbying efforts for more financial aid. Nassau County will hold its annual meeting on Friday in East Meadow.

Republican elected officials criticized Cuomo’s proposed funding plan as insufficient for Long Island's 124 school districts, which would receive a combined aid of more than $3 billion under the proposal.

“What I see right now going forward, unless something miraculous happens, I have no intention of voting for this budget, because the way the governor structured the foundation aid is going to blow out most of the districts in this room,” said State Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

Cuomo said in his proposal last month that the statewide school aid increases, though lower than last year’s by more than $170 million, addresses disparities in funding between wealthy and poorer districts.

But, Flanagan said, the proposed budget “is bad for the interests of Long Island.”

“More of you have a minimum increase than not — there’s something wrong with that and that’s not equitable,” Flanagan said.

The State Legislature faces an April 1 deadline to approve a final spending package, including school aid.

The main concern for superintendents like Kevin Coster, superintendent for the William Floyd school district, is how to increase the number of school psychologists, social workers and counselors at the district's 10 schools in the Town of Brookhaven.

“Mental health to us is a great concern,” Coster said. “If students are mentally healthy, then they can be academically healthy — the two correlate directly.

Coster said he was grateful for the 4.61% increase in aid his district would get under the proposed budget but will advocate for more aid to help Floyd’s overall operating budget.

Longwood school board trustee Victoria Molloy said her district faces a challenge in expanding programs that address specific student needs, such as mental health, special education and English Language Learner programs.

“When we find our financial aid is less than in previous years or not given in an equitable way, we find it difficult to make ends meet for certain programs,” Molloy said..”

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