Future of the Link Center Hospital School in Atlantic depends on cuts & compromise


February 12th, 2013 by Ric Hanson

A facility which is designed to provide Kindergarten through 8th grade students in the Atlantic Community School District with serious psychiatric conditions a safe and therapeutic environment for evaluation and treatment outside of a regular classroom setting, is in danger of facing cutbacks or elimination altogether. Just under a dozen people appeared at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Atlantic Board of Education Monday night at the High School, to ask the Board not to make any cuts or eliminate the Link Center Hospital School at the Cass County Memorial Hospital, which was created in the mid-1990’s.

Dr. Ivan Delgado, a child and adult psychiatrist at Southwest Iowa Mental Health Center and who provides services for the Link Center, said now is not the time to cut the school out of the district’s budget, because the State itself is facing a budget and mental health crisis, and “it’s bound to worsen.” Delgado said as an example, the number of public psychiatric beds in Iowa is back down to the levels seen in 1855, when the public began to realize they had to do something to serve the needs of psychiatric patients in a “humane” manner.  He says if there isn’t a school program in Atlantic there will be an increased need for Emergency Room visits, hospitalization, and an increased utilization of local law enforcement services in the community. He also warned of “disruptions in academic goals of students and family disruptions,” because the students will have to be transported across the state.

He warned that “psychotic, delusional patients, those with homicidal thoughts and severe mood disorders will end up being back in the school setting and disrupting the school environment.  Delgado says he’s “Not engaging in hyperbole or an alarmist rhetoric,” when he says that the program over the year “May have prevented catastrophic events in the community,” the likes of which are heard about in national media. He said “We must maintain our psychiatric services for our public school kids,” and not dismantle those resources. Cass County Memorial Hospital Assistant Administrator and CFO Steve Lewis said he understands the financial burden the School District faces, but the program at CCMH is very unique and shows that two entities that are important to the community can come together to provide services for “Some of our most delicate kids.” Roger Herring, former Atlantic High School Principal and member of the hospital Board of Trustees, suggested costs could be saved by using those services for Atlantic School District only, and eliminating sharing of the program with other school districts.

Atlantic Superintendent Dr. Michael Amstein, said the district paid $404,000 out of the General Fund for the hospital school. What’s hidden from the cost, it that the district doesn’t get the spending authority for it. This year it’s anticipated the price will be $375,000, again, without any spending authority. He says continuing to fund the hospital school as it has for the past couple of years will cause the district to quickly approach $800,000 from the General Fund, which means the eroding of the “spending authority.” Amstein said there is no doubt the hospital school is not a good program, but in order to continue with it, the board needs to find a way to pay for it without draining the cash reserves in the General Fund and also losing same amount of money in the spending authority. Amstein said he would be meeting with Department of Education officials to see if the costs could be billed to the Special Education program, and, they can look at eliminating hospital school services for other districts outside of Atlantic.