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K-12 mental health services funding revived in budget

After the Freedom Caucus blocked a bill to strengthen mental health resources in schools, the Wyoming House voted Thursday to include it in the budget.

Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) at the 2024 Wyoming Legislature. (Ashton J. Hacke/WyoFile) Credit: ASHTON J. HACKE

School-aged children filled the south side of the House gallery when a bill to strengthen Wyoming’s K-12 mental health resources failed on day four of the legislative session. 

Youngsters aren’t that unusual in the State Capitol when lawmakers are in session. A field trip to the People’s House brings civics lessons to life. 

On this particular day, students visiting the lower chamber got a peek into lawmakers’ differing views on childhood mental health. 

“Even in my little town of Big Piney, we have an inordinate amount of children that are going to school counselors that are basically talking about suicide and are in crisis,” Speaker of the House Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said.

Sommers learned of these circumstances through his experience on the Legislature’s Mental Health and Vulnerable Adult Task Force. It spurred him into action.  

“These are our precious resource, these children,” Sommers said. “And to see them in the pain, and the crisis that’s occurring in our schools, is tragic.”

The bill, however, died when the hard-line Freedom Caucus used its voting bloc to kill it upon introduction. 

“It’s not the role of government,” caucus member and Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland) said in opposition to the bill. 

“Obviously, this is a world I live in every single day,” said Haroldson, who works as a pastor. “But the reality is we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it our place as the government to try and fix this problem?’ I would go as far as to say we can’t, that’s an impossibility.”

While not in the majority, the Freedom Caucus has enough House members to block bills on introduction during a budget session, when two-thirds support is needed.  

Today, however, a slightly different version of the bill got a second chance when Sommers brought it as an amendment to the budget bill. 

The House voted 33-28 to put $18.5 million toward establishing a grant program intended to address K-12 mental health needs. 

Rep. Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne) during the Wyoming Legislature’s 2024 budget session. (Ashton J. Hacke/Wyofile)

Details and revival 

Grants would be based on the average daily membership of the school district, and the Department of Education would be responsible for promulgating rules. Plus, districts receiving a grant would need to report expenditure amounts, the number of served students and the impact of the services. 

Sommers originally asked to set $37 million toward the new grant program in his bill, but pared it back by half in the amendment. Either way, the funds would be better spent on community mental health centers, according to Rep. Clarence Styvar (R-Cheyenne), who voted against the amendment. 

“That money needs to go to them,” Styvar said. 

The program is intended to help districts identify and refer students to resources including community mental health centers, Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) said. 

“We have to give the school districts an opportunity to have the resources,” such as social workers, “to at least make sure that the kids have a direction to go,” Larsen said.

The grant program will provide lawmakers with the information they need to shape a more long-term, statewide solution, Larsen said. Whatever that fix is, Larsen added, it will be important that schools do not become the sole provider. 

Nonetheless, the grant program is not a direction schools should be going, Rep. Sarah Penn (R-Lander) said. 

“The more I see government intrusion and interference in parent and child relationships, the more I am concerned about schools getting involved in this,” Penn said. 

The unfortunate reality is that mental health concerns are now part of the education equation, Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) said. 

“Kids can’t learn if they’re depressed,” Provenza said. “They can’t learn if they’re anxious. They can’t learn if they’re suicidal. And they can’t learn if they’re dead.” 

Whether the amendment sticks remains to be seen. A mirror amendment was not brought in the Senate, which means the Joint Conference Committee will have to resolve that difference before bringing the budget back to both chambers for a vote.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.