(The Center Square) – Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods says more state funding is needed for mental health and support services in the state’s schools.
Woods asked lawmakers during budget hearings this week for funding to hire more school counselors, school nurses, social workers and military family liaisons.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that addressing students’ mental and physical health and well-being is an urgent need,” Woods told members of the House and Senate appropriations committees. “We do believe additional funding dedicated to school counselors along with funding for state-level and school social worker and school nurse positions would equip schools [to] continue responding to our students’ needs.”
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (GDBHDD) provides mental health services to a small portion of the state’s schools through the Georgia Apex Program. According to its most-recent report, the Apex program is active in about 565 of the state’s 2,200 schools and mostly in rural areas.
It is unclear how much the program costs the state, but the governor’s budget proposal shows the GDBHDD would receive a $59.2 million allocation in both fiscal year 2021 and fiscal year 2022 for child and adolescent mental health services. That amount, however, is $33.4 million less than what was allocated for the services in fiscal year 2019 and $10.4 million less than the fiscal year 2020 allocation.
“There’s more education than just the academic side,” Woods said. “Providing and meeting the basic needs of our students will help prepare them and get them ready to learn in the days ahead.”
Woods said the military liaison would help support the large population of military families in the state. There are more than a dozen military bases in Georgia. Woods, who also comes from a military family, said the liaison would help students transition as they move in and out of the state, face deployments and their families’ other military duties. The position could help Georgia maintain federal support through the bases, he said.
“We’ve got to show Washington, D.C., that we deserve to keep the bases here in Georgia, that we’re looking after their families,” Woods said.
It is unclear how much the recommended positions would cost. The Georgia Department of Education did not respond to requests for details Wednesday. Education funding is the state’s biggest expense.
Every legislative session, two budgets are passed through the General Assembly. Lawmakers must review and approve spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year, also known as the Amended Fiscal Year (AFY) budget, and approve the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
Gov. Brian Kemp instructed budget writers to add $647 million to the amended budget for fiscal year 2021 and $573 million for fiscal 2022 for the Georgia Department of Education. Under Kemp’s budget proposals, the department would receive a total of $10.72 billion in fiscal year 2021 and $10.2 billion fiscal year 2022, reflecting a difference of $73.8 million. Georgia schools also are expected to receive more than $2.1 billion through the federal Education Stabilization Fund, Kemp said Tuesday.
The appropriation committees must consider Kemp’s recommendations in the budget-drafting process. Joint budget meetings started Tuesday and are scheduled through Thursday. Once the House and Senate committees agree on a proposal, it must be approved by a floor vote in each chamber. The spending plan would then be sent to Kemp for final approval.
“While the economic uncertainty that we have, along with every other Georgia family, faced last year required making reductions to the budget across the board, funding for education and supporting our state’s teachers remains a priority of my administration,” Kemp said Tuesday.