Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Tillis, local leaders discuss federal funding needs for school mental health and safety

Sen. Thom Tillis meets with local leaders to discuss school mental health and safety. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

NEW HANOVER — State and local leaders met in Wilmington Monday to discuss mental health and school safety at a roundtable hosted by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis.

READ MORE: More staff reductions, divisions to shave off $1M to balance NHCS budget

The group mostly agreed on the barriers to mental health care in the school system, including the need for competitive wages for mental healthcare employees and a stronger pipeline of graduates into education environments.

Aside from Tillis, the roundtable included State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, North Carolina Sen. Michael Lee, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County Commissioners Chairman Bill Rivenbark, New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Charles Foust, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Maj. Jonathan Hart, Ryan Estes of Coastal Horizons and Roxie Wells from Novant Health.

Tillis sought feedback to ensure future grants from last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act were targeted to the right needs and communities. The senator is also working with Matthew and Camila McConaughey’s Greenlights Grant Initiative, which helps connect school districts with resources to complete the complicated grant process. 

BSCA is known for being the most significant gun law reform passed in 30 years. President Joe Biden signed the bill — Tillis serving as a key negotiator — into law in June 2022 following mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas. The law introduced stricter background checks for gun buyers under 21, closed the “boyfriend loophole” to prevent convicted domestic abusers from purchasing firearms for five years, and created criminal offenses for federal straw purchasing and gun trafficking. 

The legislation also puts $300 million for school districts to institute school safety measures, violence prevention, and training for law enforcement, school personnel and students. Another $3 billion is put toward mental health services within educational environments or in the community. 

Tillis described the roundtable as an awareness campaign ensuring North Carolina school systems were equipped to put themselves in the running for the federal grants. 

However, the grants are competitive, and Tillis told reporters on Monday districts with great need would be prioritized over districts with great applications. 

“Nothing’s funded perpetually this year,” Tillis said. So you’re always having to go back, but the programs that have the best chance of future funding are the programs that are actually proving that they’re solving the problem.” 

With limited funding to spread across the nation’s 13,000-plus school districts, coupled with New Hanover County’s ranking in the top 10 wealthiest North Carolina counties, there may be slim chances BSCA funding will reach local levels. 

Though, roundtable participants noted the need is there. 

“If we have the cultural capital to make it happen and we’re still falling short, I can’t imagine what it looks like in counties that don’t really have the resources that we have,” Foust said.

State Superintendent Truitt noted how important it was to have dedicated staff in schools to address physical and mental health needs and provide hands-on care. 

“So frequently it is the teacher who is handling all of these issues, and that cannot continue because that is what leads to teacher burnout,” Truitt said. “Not to mention the fact that teachers are not equipped to deal with the mental health issues or medical issues — your teacher shouldn’t be giving insulin shots in schools.” 

But health providers are some of the most vulnerable positions in a school system as federal Covid-19 funding expires, salary and benefit costs increase, and state funding fails to fully cover the gaps. In this year’s NHCS budget, the district plans to cut dozens of positions, including teachers, guidance counselors, a social-emotional learning coach and specialist, an EC coach and curriculum specialist, social workers, and technology and media coordinators.

On top of this, Commissioner Rivenbark, who served on the school board for two years, recalled teachers he’s talked to were struggling to handle behavioral issues following the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Estes added students and teachers were “traumatized” and that would take a while to subside, even with adequate resources. 

The chief operating officer at Coastal Horizons also pushed the importance of competitive pay.

“We don’t have a workforce shortage,” Estes said. “We have a wage shortage, paying mental health [employees] disproportionate wages to what someone can do in private therapy. We’re never going to build out an infrastructure if the going rate for therapy is $150 on the private market and it’s $70 on our Medicaid system.” 

Wells, the SVP chief physician executive and strategy officer for Novant Health’s coastal region, noted there was a shortage of healthcare workers, but not necessarily because fewer people were interested in allied health careers. 

“I think there are 80,000 individuals who apply to nursing school on a yearly basis and they don’t get in because there’s not space there; they don’t have enough educators to actually grow the schools,” Wells said. 

She pointed to the importance of exposing students to allied health career options and putting resources toward reducing barriers to choosing those career paths, which could also include cross-state licensures. Wells said many nurses moving to the state face a long wait to get licensed to practice there. 

Sen. Lee noted a cross-state licensure was part of the General Assembly’s ongoing budget conversations. As a note of caution, Estes said doing so could cause healthcare providers in North Carolina to practice in other states with higher pay via telehealth. 

Wells also plugged Novant Health’s new residency program for adolescent psychiatrists, and Truitt said the state was exploring paid internships for school psychologists. Both actions, they described, would unclog the pipeline of graduates to school employees. 

Though most of the conversation focused on mental health, Maj. Hart noted the sheriff’s office is focused on leveraging technology to better secure school buildings in what’s called “school hardening” — surveillance technology, metal detectors, fortified entries and more.

After the roundtable discussion, Tillis said his next steps include “getting the legislature more dialed in” to effective implementation of the grant distribution.

“I think it’s more important just to make sure they understand the resources and the opportunity to put North Carolina on the map as one of the most successful states,” Tillis said. 

Grants from the BSCA have already begun to be distributed to various applicants, including the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction so far.

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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