A decision by Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Max McGee to seek formal competitive proposals for mental health services at its five secondary schools erupted in controversy this week as the district's current and longest-running partner, Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), announced it could no longer afford to provide therapists in the districts middle and high schools for what the district was paying.
In announcing that it would not respond to a long and complex Request for Proposals (RFP) by Monday's deadline, the nonprofit is also digesting the troublesome revelation that other agencies providing similar services to the district are being paid substantially more and that a district shift to a more short-term therapy model conflicts with ACS's philosophy of how to best counsel teens.
McGee defends his decision to issue the RFP as an appropriate response to the budget problems the district is facing due to its miscalculation of property-tax revenue growth. He likened the competitive bid process to what the district occasionally does for legal, auditing and other services to ensure it is getting a good price.
To ACS, however, which has provided mental health services in the secondary schools for 37 years, it was the last straw in a relationship that has not seemed fair and equally beneficial for many years.
In a program that is well-established and integrated into the schools, ACS has staffed the middle schools five days a week with a part-time licensed therapist and two or three interns, and Paly and Gunn with a full-time psychotherapist and five or six interns at each campus.
The agency serves between 650 and 800 students each year and the district currently pays ACS $100,000 for its services, substantially less than the full cost of just one district teacher or administrator. In early March the district rejected an ACS request that it increase the contract by $50,000 to cover the nonprofit's rising costs of hiring qualified licensed therapists, and shortly thereafter the district issued the RFP, a step that appeared to some to be triggered by the additional funding request.
Meanwhile, in recent years the district has without any competitive process entered into more generous piecemeal contracts with other service providers. San Jose-based Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) receives $84,000 to provide three clinicians to each spend one day a week at the two high schools, as well as after-school "clinic" hours at the district office three evenings a week for three to four hours, plus some parent-education classes in Mandarin, Korean and Spanish.
Stanford Health receives $63,000 to provide four hours a week of services at each high school.
At the elementary school level, Counseling and Support Services for Youth (CASSY) is paid $400,000 for providing a total of 250 hours of therapy per week at eight Palo Alto elementary schools, or an average of 30 hours a week per campus, substantially fewer hours than currently provided by ACS.
Acknowledge Alliance currently receives $117,000 for services it provides at three elementary schools.
Like a long-term employee who discovers that a comparable, newly hired employee is being paid substantially more, ACS is understandably disappointed and humiliated to learn about the inequities that district administrators have allowed to develop in its contracts with mental health agencies. These agencies, all respected and well-supported in the community, have each worked hard to co-exist and to work collaboratively for the best interests of students.
While ACS has its critics, who generally complain that more licensed therapists and fewer interns are needed on the campuses, the staffing make-up has been driven by the small amount of money the district has been willing to pay and the large amount of fundraising needed to cover the nonprofit's costs.
Superintendent McGee is not wrong to want to conduct an assessment of the mental health services provided by its contractors, but in undertaking a competitive bidding process, creating an unreasonably burdensome RFP without consultation and feedback from the current providers and a short three-week deadline, he has created controversy and upset over a critical district priority -- mental health services for students -- in the name of budget reductions.
At this point, McGee has two options. He can proceed with the process and select a new contractor, likely at substantially greater cost. Or he can suspend the RFP and engage all the current vendors in a longer process of analyzing how mental health services are delivered. Either way a lot of hard work and rebuilding of relationships lie ahead.
What he should not do is look to this as a target for budget cuts. The school board has repeatedly made clear it considers expanding mental health services to ensure sufficient availability of counseling for students a priority, and cutting this investment should have been a non-starter.