Voters in two New Jersey towns approved tax increases Tuesday to expand mental health services in their schools, paving the way for students to get extra counseling and support administrators say is desperately needed.
Referendums in Metuchen and Collingswood both passed amid a mental health crisis that has led to the state’s highest suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds since the 1990s.
The votes, scheduled earlier this year, came less than a month after an NJ Advance Media investigation revealed a frayed mental health safety net in schools and an extreme shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists statewide, even as the demand for treatment grows.
Over the last five years, I have seen more mental health issues anxiety, depression than in the previous 25 years, Metuchen Superintendent Vincent Caputo said last week.
Metuchen’s ballot question passed with about 54 percent of the vote (1,660 to 1,418) and will generate an extra $700,000 in property taxes (about $133 per year for the average taxpayer).
The district will hire more school psychologists and provide additional academic and behavioral support, such as targeting students who have test anxiety or poor coping skills.
In Collingswood, the question passed with approval from about 66 percent of voters (1,362 to 697). It will raise an additional $225,000, about $48 dollars per year for the average taxpayer.
The district will expand counseling for its youngest students and add a counseling coordinator who can help families navigate the private healthcare system.
For now, a referendum may be the best way for a district to expand mental health services. The state has a 2 percent cap on spending increases in school districts, making it difficult for some districts to add services.
But education groups have warned that leaving the decision to expand mental health services to individual districts will only leave children behind in some communities.
Considering the emerging need for more mental health services in schools, the state should consider building those costs into its school funding formula, which determines how much state aid districts receive, said David Sciarra, executive director of The Education Law Center.
In 2017, there were 100 documented suicides among New Jersey’s 15- to 24-year-olds, the highest number and rate since the 1990s, according to federal data.