Funding for mental health services, additional monies for schools and what to do about school enrollment brought superintendents and school board members from Maquoketa Valley and West Delaware together with area legislators during a Zoom meeting, Dec. 21.

State Representative Lee Hein and State Senator Dan Zumbach discussed those issues ahead of the beginning of the 2021 legislative session in Des Moines.

Both legislators agreed the state coffers are in better shape than at first thought. “It’s not as gloomy as I thought it would be,” Zumbach said. “We are in a position to be responsible with our budgeting and are in a position to do what we have done for the last several years and that’s to do education first, give it the biggest piece of the pie.”

Hein agreed, but added, “I’m a little concerned how next year will play out going forward once we kind of work our way out of this. Hopefully, the economy will continue to grow.”

Maquoketa Valley School Board President Donna Kunde said she was concerned with how $47 million of COVID-19 relief funds still unspent in Iowa can be used. “How is that money going to be spent when the governor was quoted as saying she’s waiting on the federal government to see if that money can be spent after the first of the year. We need it now.”

Zumbach said the senate is trying to decide how those dollars will be spent, saying, “Rather than us trying to outguess what the governor may or may not do is premature, so we will let the governor put her mark in the sand on how that money should be spent. Then we will try to respond from that point and decide if we can agree with that or tweak it a bit.”

Hein said the legislature can’t do anything with those unspent COVID-19 funds for the time being. “The governor controls those COVID-19 funds. We don’t have any say as of now. If she puts them into the budget then we can deal with them. Currently, the dollars she’s getting from the federal government are ultimately her decision as to how to allocate them.”

The boards listed the five priorities adopted by the Iowa Association of School Boards for the 2021 legislative session: mental health, preschool, school funding policy, supplemental state aid and COVID-19 remediation. At the top of that priority list was mental health.

Zumbach told the boards the biggest problem with addressing mental health support was finding qualified mental health professionals.

“The number of bodies in that field are so limited,” he said. “We know we can’t expect our teaching staffs at our schools who aren’t trained for those mental health situations to come in and fix those problems. We are trying to find ways to lure people to come to Iowa and be available for those positions.”

West Delaware Superintendent Dr. Kristen Rickey said even if the district could hire someone, there aren’t enough mental health professionals. She said Telehealth sessions with mental health professionals have been helpful.

“While doing this remotely is not ideal, it’s better than no service at all. One challenge though, is there is still a long waiting list for students to get help through Telehealth because there aren’t enough providers. In some cases, families are waiting months and that’s too long to wait to see a brain health provider.”

Rickey told the legislators that Telehealth is available for those on Medicaid or private insurance, but that some students still fall through the gaps. “They don’t qualify for Medicaid and private insurance has limited the number of sessions they can have or have other restrictions.”

Both superintendents addressed how funds are sent to schools. Often funds are sent as categorical funds that may be spent only in a specific area. Rickey, along with Maquoketa Valley Superintendent Dave Hoeger, asked for funds with more flexibility.

“We have had a lot of additional spending in education the past decade but it has come in very categorical funds,” Hoeger said. He cited the state’s teacher leadership program as an example. “It’s a very good program that benefits our district tremendously, there are a lot of dollars associated with it, but as an administrator, I can’t use any of that money to turn the lights on. If any additional funds are allocated for schools, I hope it’s not tied to a specific categorical fund. We just need money to manage our general budget.”

Rickey gave an example of CARES Act money West Delaware received. That money, which helps support schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, provided money for internet connectivity. “We don’t happen to need a lot of money for that as our students tend to have that,” Rickey explained. “We do need to pay for substitute teachers because we have had a lot of issues with illness with staff and quarantines and I can’t use CARES money for substitutes.”

Zumbach responded by saying often rural districts pay for the decisions of urban districts in the state. “You guys are suffering because some urban districts made some really bad choices with some state funding. Then all of you are having to be restricted with regulations with funding coming to you.”

Hoeger addressed statistics that show 6,000 fewer students in Iowa schools than a year ago. School districts see funding based on the previous year’s enrollment. “Perhaps some creative conversations can take place allowing schools to use either a combination of last year’s and this year’s enrollments. It’s disconcerting where 6,000 kids actually are.”

Hein said a recent caucus he was in addressing that issue. “I know the chair is looking into that,” he said.