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SD 13 candidate Chelsea King: 'It's time for state legislators to invest in the mental health needs of our students.'

FILE PHOTO - Chelsea KingPamplin recently featured an investigative article outlining the mental health and behavioral challenges faced by today's public school students. It also included an editorial advocating that local and state officials get together immediately and address the crisis.

This call to action is both exemplary and timely. However, as a little history will point out, things aren't that simple.

Read our March 8, 2022, special report on student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2019, education stakeholders from across the state passed what would become known as the "once-in-a-lifetime" Student Success Act. This accomplishment demanded a Herculean effort from education professionals and elected officials from across the state.

At the local level, we were told that to receive our share of the Student Investment Account, we would need to explain how we would use the funds and demonstrate public process to arrive at those decisions. Our district hosted multiple parental engagement sessions, focus groups with students, surveys with 100s of responses, targeted individual outreach, then analyzed the data to create a thoughtfully crafted plan and budget.

Our local plan was linked to the statewide plan; one of our major goals was to address student mental and behavioral health. Even before the pandemic, state and local education leaders had seen a crisis brewing. We'd accurately assessed its urgency and done everything possible to get out in front of the problem before things got worse.

In December 2019, the board approved the district's plan and we were ready to make the hiring and programmatic moves.

Then came COVID, and the State of Oregon told districts that due to economic fallout, we would not receive all the funds that the SSA allocated. In West Linn-Wilsonville, we were told that of the $7.6 million we had been promised, we would only receive $2.4 million.

This choice was a disaster. It placed additional burdens on our youth, our educators, and our public education system. Just when we needed the promised investment, the money was yanked.

What's more, the decision to underfund the Student Investment Account came as Oregon was experiencing an economic boom. We were told the money wasn't there when in fact it actually was. This year, for example, Oregon taxpayers are set to receive $1.9 billion dollars in tax credits. It's estimated that in 2024, another $1 billion of credits will be made available.

Oregon is the only state in the entire country that returns all such funds directly to taxpayers. The reason these credits exist is because state officials underestimated the taxes that individual and corporate taxpayers would owe.

To be clear, these credits are not about much-needed pandemic relief funds. They're the result of a stronger-than-expected economy.

This instability has to stop. It's time for state legislators to invest in the mental health needs of our students, and to do so reliably. This doesn't require courage or vision, and it doesn't ask other stakeholders to give anything up. All that has to happen is for the funds to be allocated according to existing state law.

On behalf of Oregon's struggling youth, is that too much to ask?

Chelsea King is chair of the school board for the West Linn-Wilsonville School District and a candidate for Senate District 13, including Tigard, Wilsonville, Sherwood, King City and parts of South Beaverton. A Democrat, she lives in Wilsonville.

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