ARTICLE

AEA plan deserves legislative support

The Grant Wood Area Education Agency building in northwest Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The Grant Wood Area Education Agency building in northwest Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa’s nine regional Area Education Agencies send staff into the state’s school districts every day, to help students with special educational needs and provide numerous other services.

So when AEAs tell us there is a serious unmet need in the state’s school districts, it’s a message we need to hear. That’s especially true for our state lawmakers, who are in a position to do something about it.

Iowa AEAs are asking the Iowa Legislature to provide $2.5 million next year to pay for a pilot project to provide in-school mental health resources. The pilot would allow AEAs to test the feasibility of such a program in each of the state’s AEA regions.

AEA leaders say unmet mental health needs are a critical issue for countless Iowa school districts struggling to deal with disruptive behavior and other issues they’re not equipped to tackle. That’s why the AEA’s legislative proposal is backed by the School Administrators of Iowa, the Iowa Association of School Boards and the Iowa Urban Education Network.

“Our kids, right now, are being left out,” said Joe Crozier, chief administrator at Grant Wood AEA.

AEAs are a natural to spearhead the effort, considering the level of professional, specialized assistance the agencies already are providing to schools. But Crozier said its also OK if lawmakers come up with another format, so long as the end product still provides in-school mental health services.

And if AEAs do become the vehicle, Crozier said partnerships with existing community agencies are likely.

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We’ve seen the struggle to provide in-school services locally. Cedar Rapids Schools, once able to scratch together enough funding to provide in-school help in each of its 31 buildings, now offers half-time mental health specialists in just seven schools. In the other 24 schools, one specialist is available just seven hours weekly.

That inequality of access is deeply troubling, but understandable given the lack of dollars available to schools already wrestling to cover the costs of basic operations.

It’s past time lawmakers and the governor recognize the growing need for in-school mental health resources. The truth is, in 2015, our schools face daunting challenges that can’t be met without more dollars and innovative thinking. Wishing that wasn’t so, or turning a blind eye to children who need help, won’t make the problems go away.

The AEAs’ idea is worth a try. Lawmakers should approve the pilot.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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