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Proposal to add mental health positions at education department gets a preliminary passing grade

On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the mental health needs of Minnesota’s K-12 students and educators has become a matter of bipartisan concern.

How to adequately address those needs, however, was a matter of partisan argument Wednesday by the House Education Policy Committee.

Rep. Kelly Moller (DFL-Shoreview) has seen firsthand that something must be done: several suicides occurred at her son’s high school in recent years. This prompted her to begin work on HF362, a proposal that’s back at the Legislature for a third consecutive session.

“[This bill] creates two lead positions at [the Department of Education] related to student mental health and teacher staff mental health,” Moller said. These leads would act as a clearinghouse of information and provide a menu of options for local school districts to draw on when supporting mental health needs.

She believes this will empower the department to more meaningfully assist local school districts in combatting the scourge of suffering across the state.

Following a robust discussion, the bill was approved on a split-voice vote and sent to the House Education Finance Committee.

Republicans challenged the potential efficacy of Moller’s proposal on various grounds.

Rep. Patricia Mueller (R-Austin) said she spoke during the interim with several school districts she represents. Her takeaway from those conversations: districts need money not additional bureaucracy to help support the mental health of their students.

Meanwhile, Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-Albert Lea) took issue with the costs associated with funding these lead positions at the department. Though no firm figures were presented, she noted, “We don’t have infinite finances, we have to prioritize boots on the ground.” Bennett would like to see funding for more counselors and psychologists in the schools instead of creating a point person at the state level.

Several DFLers noted that while theirs’ is a policy committee, they agree funding is needed for more on-site staff in schools.

“There are bills coming that will be supportive of boots on the ground,” said Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL-New Hope).

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