DFL pushes for greater K-12 mental health funding as education bill negotiations open – Duluth News Tribune

ST. PAUL — With just a few weeks left, Minnesota lawmakers are working to hash out the differences between major K-12 education plans passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-Farmer-Labor-controlled House of Representatives.

Much like the other major proposals lawmakers have passed so far this session, the education bills from each chamber take very different approaches from one another. The House proposal sponsored by Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, would use the state’s historic $9.25 billion budget surplus to boost education funding by $3.3 billion into 2025. The Senate proposal does not call for significant new spending and instead pushes to boost reading proficiency scores.

Mental health funding proposals in the DFL K-12 proposal took center stage Monday, May 9, as a conference committee of House Democrats and Senate Republicans started to work through differences between the bills. School mental health services funding would make up $475 million of that spending, with dedicated funds for hiring 1,100 student support staff such as social workers, psychologists and nurses.

Multiple witnesses, including mental health professionals, students and school officials testified that the need for more mental health resources is greater than ever, especially after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Intermediate District 287 Superintendent Sandra Lewandowski testified that unmet mental health service needs have become a public safety crisis for her students and staff. Her western Twin Cities school district, which serves students struggling with homelessness and mental health issues, in February saw a fatal shooting outside one of its schools in Richfield.

“We know that challenging behavior represents unmet needs. Our unmet needs in District 287 have had significant consequences for students and emotional and physical consequences for student staff and families,” she testified. “We are all collectively responsible for addressing this public safety and children’s mental health crisis. If not, I see our staff continuing to resign at twice the pace they have in recent years, and frankly, I think our state of Minnesota could end up subject to litigation around this issue.”

Lewandowski shared stories of staff resigning from positions after dangerous or traumatic incidents. One teacher resigned after being punched in the face by a student and getting a concussion. Another left their position shortly after intervening in a student’s suicide attempt due to trauma and previous work-related concussions.

In addition, the House bill would provide hundreds of millions to make up for a shortfall in special education funding, something school administrators and the Minnesota School Boards Association pushed for at a Monday news conference. The shortfall in the current school year is expected to be up to $822 million, the group said in citing Minnesota Department of Education data. The House bill calls for $1.4 billion in funding going into the year 2025.

The Senate proposal, sponsored by Lino Lakes Republican Roger Chamberlain, does not call for significant new spending and instead pushes to boost reading proficiency scores. Senators last week passed an education proposal that aims to improve literacy in the state’s public schools by directing school boards to develop plans to get 90% of third-graders reading at grade level. It also appropriates $30 million for training programs aimed at training teachers to improve student reading scores.

“If you can’t read you’re going to have problems in school,” Chamberlain told the committee. “We all know that 50% of our kids aren’t reading at grade level they become disruptive with behavioral problems and eventually probably drop out of school and sadly many of them end up in the criminal justice system.”

Chamberlain acknowledged mental health issues are becoming worse among youth, but pointed to social media’s impact as one of the main culprits.

GOP lawmakers say the state has already increased education spending by large amounts since 2017. The Legislature successfully passed a $1.1 billion increase in school funding in 2021, as well as the biggest increase to the funding formula in 15 years.

As the Legislature enters its last two weeks of the regular session, lawmakers are entering their final push to get major policy and spending proposals to the governor’s desk. Major packages known as omnibus bills for public safety, taxes and education are currently the subject of negotiations between the Senate and House in conference committee. There is a chance that elected representatives won’t be able to reach an agreement on all policy areas by May 23, the last day of the session.

Meanwhile, an even year at the state Capitol would traditionally mean state lawmakers would try to pass bonding bills to borrow money for public infrastructure projects across the state. While lawmakers in both chambers have been considering spending proposals on their capital investment committees, neither the Senate nor the House has taken up a bill yet.

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