As Murphy prioritizes youth mental health, lawmakers and advocates blow up his school service funding plan

As Murphy prioritizes youth mental health, lawmakers and advocates blow up his school service funding plan

Back in Trenton, however, Murphy and members of his administration have come under fire for their plan to seize funding for the state’s school-based youth health services programs in favor of a not-yet-operational model. and which many doubt will provide the same quality and speed of services.

“It is not a modernization or an extension of the current model. It’s an elimination of the current model,” Trenton Public Schools Superintendent James Earle told lawmakers Wednesday during a virtual meeting of the Joint Committee on Public Schools. The administration’s proposed plan, Earle said, “draws services away from schools and therefore creates barriers to access that the original model was meant to eliminate.”

As part of the Murphy administration’s proposal, beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, the state’s longstanding Youth School Services program will be eliminated. The money set aside for this system will instead be transferred to a regionalized “hub and spoke” model called the New Jersey State Student Support Services Network, or NJ4S. It will be operated by the state Department of Children and Families.

The current school system operates with approximately $30 million in state and federal funding.

Murphy officials championed the NJ4S as an “evidence-based” model that was created through a “comprehensive stakeholder engagement process” and will improve access and equity of mental health services for all public school students. They say the new network will have a broader reach, provide more standardized care to more students, and focus resources in districts that need it most.

DCF Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer has repeatedly said the state is committed to ensuring “continuity of supports for students through this transition.”

But education advocates and school leaders say the administration is trying to “spin” its proposal and obscure the fact that the state intends to eliminate funding for school programs. They also say the timeline for setting up and operating the NJ4S program is questionable at best and that the plan is built on a mountain of unsubstantiated — or undisclosed — data.

“It’s being done in a way that seems incredibly dishonest from a public perspective,” said Julie Borst, education advocate and executive director of Save Our Schools NJ, of the administration’s rollout of the NJ4S proposal.

Borst, several superintendents and some mental health professionals working in schools say they were never included in the policy-making process when NJ4S was being considered.

They told lawmakers at Wednesday’s virtual committee meeting that the state refused to provide detailed data from surveys the administration commissioned from a nonprofit the state paid to conduct. its awareness-raising activities.

The DCF has yet to produce the contract between the state and the Center for Health Care Strategies that POLITICO requested on October 12. The non-profit organization was selected through a request for proposals process to manage stakeholder engagement. The State Public Records Act requires that contracts be released “immediately” to anyone who requests them.

One of the basic state statistics officials relied on to prove their star model would be more efficient was also denounced as “unscientific” by the same group that produced the data.

In a concept paper released with the state’s announcement of NJ4S late last month, the state cites a survey by a group called School Based United showing that 66% of New Jersey college students said that ” they prefer to receive mental health support or advice remotely or in a non-school setting rather than at their school.

At first glance, the figure is striking. While most students don’t want mental health services in schools, the state argued, a non-school program like the NJ4s would better meet students’ reported needs.

But the concept paper leaves out crucial context. The survey was not conducted in a coherent or scientific way, it was not intended to guide policy, and it was sent to thousands of students at the height of the pandemic, when many schools were closed or that children were learning in a hybrid format.

School Based United, an ad hoc group of educators and directors of school-based youth service programs across the state, was launched two years ago when Murphy’s administration first proposed reduce program funding.

Suzanne Keller, school program director at Red Bank Regional Secondary School in Monmouth County and a member of School Based United, said the group was started ‘to promote the advancement of school-based education’ . [services] in New Jersey because we saw the signs on the wall saying we were leaving and because the state wasn’t interested in talking to us, we formed our own coalition.

Keller said the group’s intent was to provide the state with information — “a finger in the wind” — to prove how much these programs mean to their communities and to check how students are doing during the shutdowns. She said she never expected the information to be used as a basis to defund their programs.

“We presented it to the state, and then they turned around and used it against us,” Keller said. If School Based United knew how the information would ultimately be used, Keller said, “we would never have presented our findings to them.”

During Wednesday’s virtual hearing, lawmakers heard moving testimonies from parents, students and school leaders about the importance of school programs to their communities.

Advocates also testified that nationally, school services are the gold standard and that more states have adopted school programs following New Jersey’s.

No one other than Beyer came out in favor of the NJ4S model at the committee meeting. Beyer left the meeting immediately after his testimony at the start of the hearing, but said his staff would remain to listen and take comment.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were “outraged” by the state’s proposal and Beyer’s decision not to stay for the entire meeting.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) introduced a bill on Monday, NJ A4808 (22R)that would require the state’s DCF to continue funding the School-Based Youth Services program and other lawmakers have strongly indicated they will seek to continue funding it in the upcoming budget.

“We want to send a message back to the commissioner, to Governor Murphy’s office, that this is off limits for the state of New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (D-Mercer).

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