NY’s budget has $100M for academic and mental health programs. Schools still don’t have the money.

Students walk down the side walk with a tree and cars on the right side.
Students leave school for the day in Cypress Hills, a neighborhood hit hard by the pandemic. The state was supposed to distribute $100 million in grant funds to districts to create more pandemic recovery programs for students, but schools still haven’t seen that money. (José A. Alvarado Jr. for Chalkbeat)

With growing concerns over youth mental health and academic recovery, New York’s state lawmakers included $100 million in the state budget last year for schools to spend on mental health resources or after-school programs.

But, with the majority of the school year now over, school districts haven’t been able to apply for the money.

“It is very disappointing that the money that was allocated for desperately needed services by children and adolescents is not getting to them,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children. “There is a lot of trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations that we continue to hear about from family after family.”

The idea was to let school districts apply for a chunk of the money, which would match whatever other dollars they planned to spend on such programs. Half of the money was to be used during this school year and the other half for the 2023-24 school year. Lawmakers envisioned the funds going toward hiring mental health professionals, expanding school-based mental health services, and creating summer, after-school and extended day and year programs.

State education officials, who are charged with planning the grant program, have blamed the delay on a lengthy process that involves getting approvals from the state’s budget division — which has not yet given its final sign off. 

Justin Mason, a spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office, said the process has been complex because it involves both mental health and education components. They now expect the money to be available for next school year, but declined to answer whether schools will get to use the money for any additional school years. 

Asked whether Hochul finds the delay acceptable, Mason said it’s the result of a longstanding process that exists to “ensure state funding is allocated in a fair and transparent manner.”

Hochul proposes grant funds to bolster pandemic recovery

As calls grew nationally to address a youth mental health crisis fueled by widespread loss and grief from the pandemic, Hochul proposed last January to add $100 million to the state budget for this fiscal year, which runs from April 1, 2022 to this upcoming March 31, and touted the money in a press release when it made it into the final budget. 

At the time of Hochul’s proposal, students had returned to campuses full time for the first time since the pandemic. Many educators had reported students struggling with behavioral, social, and mental health issues. Social workers and counselors reported being inundated with student referrals.

In New York City, one in every 200 children has lost a caregiver to COVID. More than 40% of students nationally reported feeling persistent sadness in 2021, compared to about 25% ten years before that, according to a recently released survey. 

Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy and communication at the state’s Council of School Superintendents, said his organization has seen a need for more dedicated mental health resources in New York’s schools since at least 2017, based on an annual survey of superintendents across New York. 

They were thrilled when Hochul highlighted it as a priority. He said that they are “surprised” and “disappointed” that this $100 million has still failed to reach schools. 

It’s possible many districts are still busy spending billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief aid, potentially making this grant less of a need at the moment, advocates said.

Still, districts likely would have jumped at the money had it been available, Lowry said. Those matching funds could have helped districts launch or expand initiatives that they’d already been working on, such as New York City’s pilot effort to pour more mental health resources into 50 high-need schools in order to minimize the use of police intervention, Yuster said. 

Getting grant money to school districts can take almost a year

Education officials said it usually takes nine to 10 months to issue a request for proposals, or RFP, which lays out the parameters of the funds and is what districts must respond to when applying for grant money.

For grant programs, education officials are typically tasked with creating the RFP, which other agencies, such as the state’s budget division, must then approve. That can lead to monthslong delays from when the money is available to when schools can use it, advocates said.

“I think mental health was something that was underinvested in prior to the pandemic [and] the pandemic exposed this is actually a high-need area,” said Jasmine Gripper, executive director of Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group that has pushed for more school funding. “We needed to double down, and the delay in that process just kinda signals how we don’t take our children’s mental health needs as a priority.”

A timeline provided by the education department shows how the process played out with this $100 million pot of funds: Education officials first sent a summary of a possible RFP last June to the budget office. They spent July reworking their proposal in response to feedback from the budget and governor’s offices, but by August budget officials asked the education department to create an RFP based on what they had originally proposed. 

In November, two months after the school year had started in New York City, education officials sent over a completed draft of the RFP. They received more feedback right before winter break, which required “substantial” changes, according to education officials, who sent another revised version back to budget officials earlier this month. 

As of Friday, the education department was awaiting final approval to release the RFP to school districts. 

“The field is looking at us and saying, ‘We desperately need this,’” State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa said during a legislative budget hearing earlier this month, where she was asked about the delay in distributing the funding.

“We have to streamline it,” Rosa said of the RFP approval process. “We have to get to a point that… we do it and make sure that if they have 27-30 questions, let’s sit at the table, let’s get the questions done, let’s get this money into the hands of our school districts and our schools and our agencies, where it’s needed,” Rosa said.

Hochul is still interested in these issues: Her budget proposal this year calls for making mental health services more accessible for students and directing a chunk of Foundation Aid, the state’s main formula for school funding, toward high-dosage tutoring. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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