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School officials are still scrambling to figure out how they’ll shoulder the costs for counseling, therapy and other mental health services for students with disabilities after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger gutted funding for counties to do it.

Deprived of the funding it would usually use to cover the services for school districts, San Diego County has agreed to keep covering the services only until the end of December. It has historically been reluctant to foot the bill for programs California doesn’t fund.

When the new year starts in a few weeks, strapped school districts will have to pay for the services themselves. They can be expensive: Mental health services for a single child annually can cost anywhere from $5,000 for outpatient services to $136,000 for residential care, said Timothy Glover, who directs a consortium that handles special education services for East County school districts.

“These are the most unique and needy students we have,” Glover told the county school board on Wednesday. He compared their counseling and therapy to air to breathe. (The county school board, which oversees the County Office of Education, is not the same entity as San Diego County.)

The tab comes out between $4 million and $7 million for San Diego Unified, Superintendent Bill Kowba told a parent committee for students with disabilities last night. The financial hit is just another worry for the largest school district in the county as it faces an upcoming deficit of roughly $120 million.

“It’s just another windmill we’re fighting right now,” Kowba said.

School officials across the county have been meeting regularly to try to work out how to continue services until at least the end of June. They are scheduled to meet with county mental health officials next week to try to work out an agreement. But it’s still unclear how it would be funded. As January looms, education officials have grown increasingly upset about California handing them the bill.

“I’m sitting here gritting my teeth and clenching my hands about how the eighth largest economy in the world cannot take care of its children,” said Mark Anderson, a member of the county school board.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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