Oak Harbor school board legislative priorities highlight mental health funding

School district leaders met with legislators to talk before the legislative session begins.

Oak Harbor school district leaders discussed the need for school funding during a legislative forum with local lawmakers Friday afternoon, highlighting the need for mental health services for students.

Oak Harbor School Board members and other school officials met with state Sen. Ron Muzzall, R-Oak Harbor, Rep. Dave Paul, D-Oak Harbor, and state Representative-elect Greg Gilday, R-Camano Island, to share their goals for the upcoming legislative session beginning next month.

Funding for mental health services in schools was also one of the main concerns board members had. Mental health has been a crisis for years, school leaders said, and COVID exacerbated existing issues.

“When it comes to mental health treatment, especially in this community, there is an extreme shortage of mental health care providers in community-based mental health,” said Jessica Aws, a school board member.

“Many of our students receive their mental health care in the schools — that’s the only consistent place for them to get that very much-needed care.”

Aws asked for direct financial support for school psychologists and counselors, and pass-through funding to create community partnerships.

Kate Valenzuela, principal of Crescent Harbor Elementary, said counseling staff has been stretched thin during the pandemic.

“What we see is just families at the breaking point,” Valenzuela said.

“Our counseling staff had been used to providing support to kids in the school setting and now really try to just provide support to family as well.”

Valenzuela said counselors have been responding to an increase in the number of children with thoughts of suicide as well as more parents who have asked for advice for how to help their children.

This is on top of academic need, she said, and the pandemic has exposed the different levels of support some students receive at home for their education.

School board member Erik Mann said he understood it may be a tight budget year and is open to other ways to address mental health in the school community.

“Our basic mandate is to provide basic education. We’re not here to provide public health, but that’s what we end up carrying the burden for when it’s not available for our students from other places,” Mann said.

If there were other agencies providing those services that could take “that burden off our staff so they can continue educating students and not providing for their basic health, that would obviously be preferable,” he said.

Along with mental health, special education funding continued to be a crucial concern.

Mann added that Oak Harbor has a higher special education population than is covered by state funding.

“We do support our special ed program substantially at the local level,” said Vicki Williams, school district business services director.

The board also asked the state legislators to consider lowering the threshold for bonds to pass from a super majority to a simple majority.

In Washington state, bonds need 60 percent to pass.

The school board highlighted the upcoming bond vote in February 2022 that will go toward replacing five schools as a pressing concern.

Going forward, Muzzall agreed that more mental health care funding was needed, but he added that methods of delivering services need to improve.

Gilday said he was concerned about the educational disparities exposed by virtual classes depending on whether a student had an adult at home to help with homework, and that leaders need to find a way to educate all students.

Paul asked for feedback about programs to address learning loss, which he predicted would come up during the legislative session.