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, became a victim of the budget cutting axe Monday. Despite a public hearing on budget, during which several people made impassioned pleas to save the hospital school and make cuts elsewhere, the Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of approving the budget without funding for the Link Center Hospital School for FY 2013-14 at the Cass County Memorial Hospital. The school was created in the mid-1990’s.
None of the board members wanted to cut the funding umbilical cord from the hospital school, but they also didn’t want to risk losing the district’s spending authority by losing a similar amount in what it would pay to keep the school open, which Superintendent Mike Amstein said in February, would be about $375,000. He said the district cannot continue to lose its spending authority, which has steadily been on the decline for the past five-years, and continue to pay for the school out of the General Fund. Amstein said also, they would have to increase the property tax levy 50-cents above the 10-cent increase already planned for the next fiscal year, based on zero-percent allowable growth, which equates to $14.51 per thousand dollars taxable valuation. The current levy is $14.41. Amstein said the students will continue to be served by the district’s Level 3, or Behavioral Health, program.
He said for those students who the district cannot effectively serve under a Level 3 program, it will look at other day treatment program – if space is available. The bottom line, according to Amstein, is that the district is required to provide a Level 3 program, and they intend to do so. He acknowledged however, that it will provide the same type and quality of service currently provided by the Hospital School, but it “Will look very similar to a Level 3 program,” found in Marshalltown, Des Moines, and elsewhere. Amstein was asked by Board member Rod Hartwig, if there are any other ways the program could be saved, either by grants, and cuts elsewhere, but Amstein said the revenue sources just aren’t there.
Amstein said there is no easy solution to saving the school while at the same time keeping the district in “Solid fiscal shape.” He said the if the board continues to fund the program at current levels, district officials may be called in front of the Iowa Department of Education’s School Budget Review Committee to have a plan developed to address the district’s spending authority issue, which is something he doesn’t want to see happen.
Amstein says if the district loses its spending authority, even if it has the cash, it can’t touch it. He said his decision to recommend cutting funds for the Hospital School was not an easy one, but he and Business Manager/Board Secretary Mary Beth Fast had turned over “every stone” to try and find ways other ways, but were unable to do so, even after talking with an expert in school financing.