For the state, county and local officials gathered at the 32nd annual elected officials luncheon, Nov. 26 at Fireside Pub & Steakhouse in Manchester, the topics discussed had a familiar ring to them.
Child care tax credits, mental health support for children and workforce development drew support from many in attendance.
Maquoketa Valley School Board President Donna Kunde said mental health support for schools was the number one request at the recent Iowa School Board Association Convention.
“It was the overwhelming priority among school boards,” she told the crowd. “Like many schools, we are struggling with staff to deal with that issue.”
During the last session, state legislators approved a mental health care system but provided little money for its implementation.
State Representative Lee Hein said he expects the legislature to provide funding this session for the system. “It’s certainly something I hear from school districts,” he said. “I know we are looking at a way to fund it this year.”
Following the luncheon, Kunde explained, calling mental health a “multi-faceted issue” in rural districts like Maquoketa Valley.
“Rural districts don’t have access to immediate mental health services like many of our urban access centers do,” she said. “We do have 11 professional mental health psychiatrists in this area, but nine of them will retire in the next five years. We don’t have the personnel to fill those positions.”
She called for rural districts to have access to those with specific mental health training. “Our teachers have been through training with the AEA (Area Education Agency), but our teachers are not mental health experts. We can’t expect them to be. Whether it’s social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists, we need to have those people available.”
She said that while the AEA can provide some of that help, it’s not always best for students or their families. “We have to send kids out to receive that help. We need to have people on staff, in school, so that when a need arises, we aren’t just dealing with the child, but also the family. Often, the family issue is even a bigger issue that we aren’t addressing.”
She said since the legislature didn’t fund the system last year, the responsibility now falls on the district. “Maquoketa Valley, as well as our neighboring schools, have added staff, but that funding comes from our general fund. It means taking from someplace else to support having someone with that training to be in our classroom.”
Hein said he expects to see the Iowa House address workforce development and increasing child care credits.
“Workforce is huge,” he said. “Businesses and industries support the idea. I don’t know of any business or industry that isn’t looking for good employees who are skilled and can do the job for them. I think that will be an issue for a long time going forward, having those types of programs and being able to fund them.”
He said child care is “a constant problem for folks.” He said the issue was discussed near the end of last year’s session. “I think it will come up again. Perhaps we could increase the rate so if a family’s income is a little higher, they could still get some tax credit for child care.”
He also shared his concern with funding for rural EMS services. “It’s a top priority of mine to try to get more funding. It costs just as much to staff an ambulance here in Manchester as it does in Cedar Rapids. But the one in Cedar Rapids makes more trips and has more revenue. They are self-sustaining, while many in rural Iowa run at a deficit. We need to figure out a way to get health care emergency care to rural Iowa.”