Emotional students, parents make plea to spare Wellness Centers
Tam district, facing huge budget shortfalls, may slash popular new outlet for teens
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the March 16, 2016, edition of The Ark. It earned second place for Best Education/Literacy Story in the National Newspaper Association’s 2017 Better Newspapers contest and second place for Coverage of Education in the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2016 Better Newspapers Contest.
By MATTHEW HOSE
Faced with a potential cut to the Tamalpais Union High School District’s nascent mental health and wellness programs, more than 100 parents and students crowded a school board meeting March 8 to issue an emotional plea that officials move forward with the district’s proposed Wellness Centers despite coming years of budget shortfalls.
The district is facing a tough few years ahead as enrollment is expected to escalate by 22 percent while the district’s revenue, the bulk of which comes from property taxes, increases by only 5 percent per year.
Parents at the standing-room-only meeting at Redwood High School asked the board to find a way to reduce deficits without axing the Wellness Center program, which just began this year at Redwood High School — the chief public high school for Tiburon Peninsula residents — and is planning a launch at Tamalpais High School and Sir Francis Drake High School next school year.
In addition, a Change.org petition in support of the Wellness Centers has nearly garnered its goal of 1,500 signatures.
The board will hold a special budget-oriented meeting at 5 p.m. March 22 at Redwood, open to the public, during which the board will hear a report from its budget committee and begin to determine priorities for the next several years.
“We want to be really transparent with our decision-making to get as much input from the community as we can,” said board President Michael Futterman.
The Redwood Wellness Center, which serves as a hub for students to receive counseling and nursing services, or to de-stress by hanging out over a snack with some tea, has been an overwhelming success in its first semester of full operation, according to Tam Union Senior Director of Student Services Wes Cedros. He said that it so far has served more than 260 students for therapy, counseling and other sessions.
With 77 percent of 11th-grade students self-reporting that they have drunk alcohol or used drugs, 33 percent reporting that they have been drunk or high at school, and 20 percent reporting that they have seriously considered attempting suicide in the past 12 months, according to a 2013 survey, Deborah Holley, a member of the wellness design team, said that the Wellness Center is the “ultimate recognition” that the county is finally attempting to come to terms with its high rates of substance abuse.
A number of parents raised concerns that the district is considering getting rid of the Wellness Center before it has even had a chance to prove its long-term benefits.
Redwood has only implemented one of two phases of its Wellness Center plan, with the second phase of a nursing center as a part of its drop-in site next school year. Additionally, Tamalpais and Drake high schools are still only in the planning and survey process for their wellness centers, though Drake is looking to start services in the 2016–2017 school year and Tamalpais hopes to offer full services the following year.
“The Wellness Center is one of the best things that (has) happened at Redwood in the four years since I’ve been there,” said Redwood senior Kayla Aldridge of Tiburon.
Budget cuts imminent
Sally Swan, assistant superintendent of finance and facilities, presented a dire picture of the next few years for the school district: It is going to see a sharp uptick in the number of students sitting in its classrooms, while revenues for the school — largely generated by property taxes — will only increase modestly.
The district is already projecting to deplete its reserves by more than $1.86 million in fiscal 2017. That will only get worse, according to Swan, as the district has to accommodate 982 additional students in the next five years, with enrollment increasing by more than 240 students in each of the next two years. That requires 13 additional teachers and counselors in each of the next two years, according to Swan.
The district will also have to consider adding up to 33 classrooms, which could cost between $20 million and $40 million, depending on whether the district decides to go with modular units or permanent classrooms, or $3 million to 9 million if the district decided to lease portable classrooms.
Specifically for the Wellness Centers, the district would also need to hire four more employees in the next two years — one coordinator and one outreach specialist for each proposed Wellness Center at Tamalpais and Drake high schools — for a total of nearly $400,000 through 2017–2018.
Board member Chuck Ford said that the district needs to begin looking to make cuts now before it gets hit with increasing enrollment numbers, or else it will find itself in a bind in a few years.
“If we let this slide two or three years without making some serious commitments to reducing our budgets, then we’re looking at things like larger class sizes and counselor case loads,” Ford said.
He added that all sorts of programming could be on the chopping block. He said he could foresee the district eliminating field trips and sports, deleting assistant principal positions, deferring maintenance on its building, curtailing new spending and cutting initiatives to help failing students.
“Those are the things we would have to start doing unless we … really, seriously address the budget,” Ford said. “It’s horrible when you have to make cuts that you don’t want, that are unthinkable. Because they become thinkable.”
Nevertheless, Julia Vander Vennet, a school psychologist at Redwood, said that the board’s consideration of eliminating the Wellness Center program is “communicating to students that there is a monetary value on mental health and that there is a monetary value to their life.”
“It breaks my heart to see that this program that addresses something so important, which is the lives of our students, is on the chopping block,” Vander Vennet said.
Noah Block, a junior at Drake, expressed a similar concern.
“It seriously feels like you’re putting a number on my life, and it’s hurtful,” Block said.
Jessica Flaum of Belvedere, Redwood High School’s student representative on the board, said that the center’s effect on Redwood “has been absolutely phenomenal and revolutionary” in breaking down stigmas about mental health at the school.
Fighting back tears, Flaum told the packed conference room about a talk that she had with her father after hearing concerns about the school’s budget over the next few years and how those funds might affect the Wellness Center.
Her father said to her that if the center saves just one life, it is absolutely worth the expense.
“But Wellness won’t save one student,” Flaum said. “It will save so many, and that is invaluable.”
Reporter Matthew Hose covers the city of Belvedere, as well as crime, courts and public safety issues on the Tiburon Peninsula. Reach him at 415–944–4627 and on Twitter at @matt_hose.