On a 4-2 split vote, the Brainerd School Board on Monday voted to stick with the district's existing mental health services provider, Northern Pines Mental Health Services in Brainerd, rejecting a recommendation to switch to a new provider made by the school board finance committee last week.
Board members Reed Campbell and Jim Hunt opposed the move while board members Ruth Nelson, Tom Haglin, Kent Montgomery and Chris Robinson voted in favor.
After the board's decision, many of the approximately 30 Northern Pines mental health professionals and supporters who attended Monday's meeting were visibly moved. Several wiped tears from their eyes.
Last week, the finance committee recommended the board approve a three-year contract with Nystrom and Associates, a Minnesota-based agency with a Brainerd/Baxter office, that would facilitate the district's mental health services for students. The district has been served by Northern Pines since 1993.
"It really scares me to come into this school year, knowing that there's a chance that some of these people won't be there,"
Todd Person, a Forestview special education teacher
The district had requested proposals and Nystrom and Associates and Northern Pines were the only two mental health agencies that responded.
Nystrom and Associates came in with the lowest bid, about $20,000 a year less in net costs to the district than Northern Pines, said Steve Lund, director of business services. Nystrom and Associates' annual net costs to the district would have been about $72,000 a year, compared to about $92,000 for Northern Pines. The mental health agencies take care of third party billing for the district and this, combined with state reimbursement for these mental health services, reduces the district's costs.
Lund said the district will still save about $7,300 annually on mental health services, even with the higher cost of the contract with Northern Pines, which is a one-year contract with the option of renewal for each of the following two years.
A few Northern Pines employees, including executive director Glenn Anderson, spoke during the public forum portion of the meeting, asking the board to reconsider the committee's recommendation.
Anderson said with 170 active cases, changing providers so close to the new school year would have a negative effect on students who rely on mental health services. The district utilized 17 full-time-equivalent mental health professionals from Northern Pines last year.
Todd Person, a Forestview special education teacher, spoke in support of Northern Pines and the work they do within the district. He said he's had many students successfully leave his special education program with assistance from Northern Pines staff.
"It really scares me to come into this school year, knowing that there's a chance that some of these people won't be there," said Person.
Brian Nystrom of Nystrom and Associates said his company, which employs 365 staff members in six sites around the state, is a for-profit private agency that doesn't benefit from government grants and watches its bottom line. Northern Pines is a private nonprofit agency.
"I see our proposal as good stewardship of taxpayer dollars and will save the district substantial dollars, hopefully the savings can be used for other services, such as hiring more teachers," said Nystrom.
While Haglin noted the district needed to take a critical look at every dollar it spends, he said when he looks at the time frame for a transition and the relationships already developed between students and their mental health providers, he had a difficult time supporting a change to a new provider. He said he supported it last week but had learned much more about the situation since that time.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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