For The Record

House rural development study panel considers school mental health needs

By: - August 26, 2019 8:00 am

State reps. John Corbett, Sam Watson and Rick Jasperse enjoy a lighter moment during a meeting of the House Rural Development Council held Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. The three are the council’s new leadership. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Jasper, GA – The state sent $69 million to Georgia’s public schools this year to beef up physical security after a string of school shootings in other states. Now, a north Georgia superintendent says educators need more state aid to address the less tangible side of the issue.

“If a student came to school with a broken arm, we would do whatever was necessary to have the break repaired and care for the child,” Damon Gibbs, superintendent at Dawson County Schools, recently told lawmakers.

“But children are coming into our schools emotionally broken and we don’t have the tools necessary to provide that same level of care,” he said. “We can and we should do better.”

Gibbs said his district has had five student suicides in as many years, with neighboring Lumpkin County losing four students to suicide.

State lawmakers, at Gov. Brian Kemp’s urging, added another $8.4 million to this year’s budget to increase the number of high schools receiving community-based mental health services provided through a program called Apex.

But Gibbs said the service available to his district through the program remains the same.

“We need mental health counselors that are with our kids every day, that don’t worry about what type of insurance they have,” he said.

His plug for state funding for mental health counselors is one of the many ideas being pitched to state lawmakers as they kick off a new round of hearings around the state focused on rural Georgia’s woes. This one was held in Pickens County, a mountain community home to about 32,000 people and known for its marble and a large Jeep festival.

The legislative panel, called the House Rural Development Council, is ramping up for its third session. It remains to be seen what proposed fixes will come from the group this time, but past proposals have ranged from minor tweaks to sweeping proposals.

One of the biggest fights under the Gold Dome this year originated with the council, with the group pushing for an overhaul of the state’s regulatory framework for health care facilities and new requirements for more transparency from hospitals that enjoy the perks of non-profit status. Versions of both proposals passed, although the ambitious overhaul envisioned was scaled back significantly.

But there have also been duds that went nowhere at all, like a proposal to give a tax break to folks willing to move to the country.

The makeup of the mostly Republican council alone makes it one of the more influential forces at the statehouse. For one, most of the council is populated by committee chairs in the House – including the chief budget writer and rules chairman. Two of Gov. Brian Kemp’s floor leaders also sit on the panel. And then there’s the little matter of the council being formed at House Speaker David Ralston’s behest.

This time, though, the group will meet as House lawmakers get a jumpstart on the budget after Kemp ordered significant cuts. Ralston also recently impaneled a special committee focused on stimulating new industries to continue to grow the state’s economy and fill its coffers.

“The national and international economy may slow or sputter and that could impact our state in the not-so distant future,” Ralston told the council.

“Whether those storm clouds gather, whether the rains come or not, we will be ready,” Ralston said. “What that means with this council and your work is simple: Your efforts are as an important now as they have ever been, probably more so”

The first of the council’s five-meeting roadshow focused on education and workforce development. The council is also expected to delve into agriculture, economic development and rural health care in the coming months before offering up a slate of proposals in December.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.