Edit on April 27: PAUSD has recommended Counseling and Support Services for Youth (CASSY) as a replacement for ACS. CASSY is proposing to serve PAUSD’s three middle schools and two high schools for $467,000 in place of the $137,000 budget that PAUSD denied ACS to serve the same five schools. This is strange and alarming, considering that the District wanted to cut down on costs in order to alleviate budget shortfall issues.
In light of Palo Alto High School’s recent California Healthy Kids Survey highlighting worrisome statistics about Palo Alto Unified School District’s (PAUSD) mental health situation, it is shocking that the District has discontinued its 37-year relationship with Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) and has decided to seek other counseling providers instead to reduce costs.
Non-profit ACS, which has been paid $100,000 annually, has been unable to support itself with the budget. In the past year, ACS has asked for more money from the District several times: initially $200,000 for the upcoming year, which the District didn’t grant, and then later proposals for $147,000 and $137,000 which were rejected as well.
Facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall, the District is doing everything it can to cut costs, according to Superintendent Max McGee.
“We sent RFPs [Request for Proposals] out for legal services, and we sent one out for audit services,” McGee said. “So [the question is], are there people that can do the job more effectively? It’s really a standard business practice.”
While the District obviously must re-evaluate its budget to alleviate the shortfall, The Campanile thinks ACS was the wrong place to cut costs. Mental health must continue to be a community priority, and sending out an RFP for alternative service providers is a step in the wrong direction.
Changing providers may cause disruption in relationships that students have with counselors and ignores the comfort students take in knowing that our provider has helped our schools through 37 years worth of necessary counseling.
PAUSD must re-evaluate its mental health counseling vision by considering the importance of long-term counseling, revisiting the budget to allocate funding better to meet our mental health needs and ultimately remember the issue of mental health pertains to student well-being — the District needs to hear from the students who depend on ACS for help before making big decisions such as denying ACS funds.
A disconnect in vision
A big reason why ACS chose not to respond to the RFP was because of its tradition of providing long-term counseling to individuals. Until this year, ACS offered long-term counseling sessions to Paly students, but because the District wanted to ensure that no students were placed on the waitlist for ACS services, ACS began conducting shorter-term, 12-week sessions to accommodate more students.
“With the short-term model, someone may have developed a relationship with a counselor and to end that relationship and to start fresh with someone else [after 12 weeks] is a huge interruption,” said Elizabeth Spector, Paly’s ACS site supervisor.
This explanation is reasonable, but the way to reduce a waiting list should not be to compromise the quality of counseling, it should be to invest more money in the services and hire more ACS staff. Jane, a senior who asked that we not use her real name, said long-term counseling is critical to ensuring that students receive the care they need.
“It takes a lot of time for a counselor to acquaint themselves with a new patient,” Jane said. “So you can obviously read notes taken from previous counselors, but it’s really the personal connection that really gives them an idea of what they are going to have to deal with. ”
McGee said that while the District would like to pursue short-term counseling, PAUSD also hopes providers will be able to refer students to external counseling services if a longer-term relationship is necessary.
However, ACS’s School and Community Based Services Director, Christine Tam, said referrals cannot sufficiently replace long-term counseling services.
“Referring people to outside counselors sometimes gets tricky because students may not follow through,” Tam said.
PAUSD should not rely on referrals as a loophole to avoid giving students on-campus long-term counseling, because the only way to guarantee the availability of such a resource is to provide it on campus. Long-term counseling worked for Paly students for over three decades; the District should have continued to pursue long-term counseling with ACS and solved problems with waiting lists differently, perhaps by hiring more staff.
Issues with funding
It should come as no surprise that ACS asked the District for more money this year; the demand for high-quality mental health counseling is simply outstripping supply, especially in Palo Alto. A lack of funding has led ACS to be unable to hire and keep counselors and supervisors.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that it had been hard for us to keep the same supervisors for over more than one school year,” Tam said. “And part of the reason was because the salaries of supervisors has significantly gone up. What we were offering was not enough to get the quality of supervisors that we want to provide.”
The fact that Paly has to switch counseling supervisors every year is exactly what the District should try to solve; a lack of continuity severely damages both the credibility of mental health services at Paly and the student-counselor relationships created at the start of each year. With this in mind, there is yet another reason why PAUSD should have matched ACS’s request.
Furthermore, it is not as if ACS’s request was unreasonable; they are simply following the trend of the counseling market, and even McGee recognizes this.
“Frankly, when we had brought in our wellness workers, we were paying them more than ACS is paying their counseling staff,” McGee said. “So I think ACS felt that they needed to be competitive with what we were paying people and with the general market.”
Of course ACS felt the need to be competitive — the District should pay the necessary price to get the job done. If the entire mental health counseling market has truly experienced a rise in costs, it would be naive to expect to receive similar quality counseling for significantly less money. A measly $37,000 — less than half the salary of the average teacher at Paly — was all ACS asked for.
Mental health must be the District’s priority. Sending out an RFP for legal and audit services may make sense because such tasks are less personal and more technical than providing mental health services.
Mental health is deeply personal and emotional, and making rash changes, even if they seem better on paper, can backfire and harm relationships that are important to students. If we prioritize mental health, then we have to be willing to pay more money for quality services, because as the saying goes, you only get out what you put in.
In the end, students want a learning environment that they feel comfortable in. There is no replacement for mental health services — the District must provide access to the appropriate services in order to help students protect themselves and allow them to thrive socially, emotionally and academically. Keeping ACS would have done just that.
“I just hope that mental health is still valued even if ACS breaks away,” Jane said. “I just really want to know that there is a backbone for students to fall back on.”