During the past two years, the lowest-hanging fruits have been routinely cut from the branches of public education.
Locally and nationwide, education departments have eliminated, or decreased, programs, teaching positions, school days, supplies, income and funding.

Yet, during a time when an estimated 20,000 students across California are at risk of losing their mental health services, the Ventura County Office of Education decided special education was one fruit they would protect at all costs — even if its estimated $7.5 million price tag means more general education department cuts.

In October, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger line-item vetoed $133 million in funding for AB 3632 services, a 25-year-old mandated program that requires the state, county mental health departments and special education to provide counseling and other mental health services.

Until now, Ventura County Behavioral Health Department (VCBH) has been responsible for the costs of 3632 services, which provide approximately 550 students countywide with an array of services such as individual therapy, group therapy, case management and residential treatment, according to Meloney Roy, director of VCBH.

Though the state has mandated these services, it has not been timely in paying back mental health agencies providing 3632 services. In Ventura County, the state still owes the Behavioral Health Department roughly $13.5 million for providing these services over the years, Roy said, and it simply did not have the funding to adequately continue.

So, on Dec. 10, county school district superintendents voted unanimously for the Office of Education to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that agrees to reimburse VCBH for the state-mandated services under 3632, including the costs of residential placement rendered to eligible students with disabilities from Oct. 8, 2010, to June 30, 2011.

Already facing a $160 million loss of funding to support education programs over the past two years, said Ken Prosser, associate superintendent of fiscal and administrative services, the County Office of Education would not stand by and watch special education fall to the wayside. Ventura County’s current budget for education is $1.5 billion.

“What we’ve tried to do in Ventura County is keep chaos away from kids and families,” said Mary Samples, special education local plan area director. “We have worked so hard and diligently with the mental health department to keep everything intact.”

The cash-strapped Office of Education will owe approximately $2.5 million for mental health services and up to another $5 million in residential social services during the span of the MOU, Samples said.

“Additional money will now be coming out of school districts, and something else will have to be given up on the general education side of things,” said Samples.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget spared additional cuts to K-12 public education, if a five-year extension of temporary tax increases is approved by voters in June.

But unless an increase in state revenue is provided by the voter-approved tax extension in June, the 2011-12 school year for K-12 California public schools is forecast to lose $2 billion in funding due to the cuts Schwarzenegger had enacted, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Extending the higher tax rates on sales, vehicles and incomes would offset some of the $2 billion in projected school district losses, Brown said.

Prosser said that working with the school districts in the county to form a payment plan for when the memorandum expires, June 30, is difficult since it hinges on the outcome of the proposed budget vote that same month.

Yet while other counties throughout the state have put special education students in jeopardy of losing their services by not hastily agreeing to a solution, Ventura County agencies, despite the cost, have made these services a priority.

“Both the county and its schools have been subjected to financial burdens,” said Roy. “But other counties have not done as good of a job as us in talking and preparing for this to happen, so we quickly made sure students didn’t suffer.”