There wasn’t necessarily opposition to the Lodi School District investing in substance abuse prevention, but for some board members it was a lot of money and an uncomfortable proposition in Monday’s meeting.
At the Lodi Board of Education’s July 11 meeting board members were presented with a request to support the continuation of the Lodi Community Action Team, or LCAT. The group was started in 2007 with a mission to prevent youth substance abuse and in 2015 was central to the creation of Prevention and Response Columbia County, a group developed to counter the opioid epidemic.
In 2011 LCAT received funding through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug-Free Communities Grant, a $125,000 five-year grant that was later renewed. But organizations cannot receive that grant more than twice, putting LCAT in the position of potentially seeing the majority of its funding disappear in September.
LCAT Project Coordinator Bryan Bilse, with District Administrator Vince Breunig (standing in for Project Director Paula Enger), presented to the board, requesting annual funding of roughly $91,583.
“Over the years, you’ve seen LCAT,” said Breunig. “You’ve seen them be involved in so many different things.”
In the following presentation, Breunig and Bilse highlighted the LCAT’s work with the Lodi Pride campaign, youth programs such as safe post-game parties at Lodi schools, information distribution, environmental strategies, like public warnings and signage, and training and education for adult community members.
To highlight their successes, Breunig pointed to results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), given to Lodi High School students. The survey separately asked students if they had used alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana in the past 30 days, with answers of “yes” in the 2011 survey totaling 39.7% for alcohol, 13.3% for tobacco, and 24.5% for marijuana. By comparison, 2019 survey results showed affirmative responses for alcohol down to 29%, tobacco down to .8%, and marijuana down to 15%.
At the time that the 2019 data was originally shared with the Lodi School Board in January 2020, according to Lodi Enterprise reporting at the time, School Board Treasurer and LCAT Coalition Chair Steven Ricks described those numbers as concerning by showing numbers moving in the “wrong direction” for the first time in many years. In the survey, vaping stood out as an issue with the number of high school students reporting as having done that in the prior 30 days doubled from 17.3% in 2017 to 38% in 2019.
Between 2017 and 2019 the rate of students using prescription drugs increased from 4% to 8%, which Ricks pointed to as a focus of the group, and reflecting an overall much improved situation.
“LCAT was started because of prescription drug use,” Ricks told the board. “When we started, it was closer to 20% across the board.”
As the opioid epidemic was prominently in public consciousness at the end of the 2010s the group Prevention and Response Columbia County focused largely on Portage, Columbus and Lodi as a matter of logistics and urgency as Breunig alluded to, talking to the board on Monday.
“One of the things that Roger Brandner, who is now the sheriff and sits on LCAT--and when Steven and Paula first started LCAT--they talked about Lodi as the worst spot in the county for alcohol, drugs, and opioids,” said Breunig. “They now talk about Lodi as the best and the place they want to raise kids, and a large part of that has to do with LCAT.”
The bulk of the proposed funding would be $135,291 in salary and benefits to keep Bilse and Enger on staff with the district. A little less than half of that would be covered by the county through PARCC, leaving $72,133 paid by the district. Other budgeted expenses include supplies, travel and personal development, marketing, and website and software, totaling $19,450, adding up to a total request of $91,583 from the district.
Although the school district has a state imposed revenue limit, the same does not apply for “Fund 80” programming, which can be levied. At the same time, Breunig pointed out that state school aid is estimated to go up 13%, or roughly $600,000. Since the state legislature did not raise revenue limits for public schools, that school aid will bypass the school and go directly to lowering property taxes.
An unknown factor in funding LCAT, as Bilse explained, was that Enger has applied for new grant funding that would be in the area of $50,000, but the results of that application are not expected until September, as the current funding will be ending.
If the grant were to come through, according to the proposal, that amount would be subtracted from the levy.
Board member Heather Baron, attending virtually, asked for clarification of the relationship between the school district and LCAT. Breunig explained that although the program is grant funded, the school supports it as a financial agent and with some other expenses that are later reimbursed.
With the relationship changing to the district largely funding LCAT itself, Baron asked if there could be an expectation of the district more directly receiving benefits from the program.
As things currently stand, that would be impossible, Breunig explained, clarifying that the program would be funded through Fund 80, which is a state mandated fund for public schools to provide public services, other examples being swimming lessons, and food delivery programs. If the benefit was directed specifically toward students, then it would be a Fund 10 program, and would be subject to revenue limits and other restrictions of school spending.
Board member Scott Bilse also questioned why it the burden should be so largely on the district if it is a community program.
“I don’t want to sound like the Grinch,” said Bilse, “...we’re basically asking taxpayers to pay for LCAT.”
Board member Kristi McMorris expressed similar reservations, telling the group that she was uncomfortable with the apparent choice before members to either take over as the majority supporter of the program, or to see it killed.
“I feel very pressured to make this decision and I don’t like it at all,” said McMorris.
Board member Terry Haag suggested that the fallout of not having LCAT in place could be greater than what they were being asked to fund. In a more heated moment, Board President H. Adam Steinberg recalled the crisis of heroin addiction at the time that the group started: “$100,000 would be cheap for a program like LCAT, other communities would like to have something like it, but don’t,” said Steinberg, going on to address the tax burden, saying, “how much would their property values drop with heroin coming back in and opiate overdoses?”
At the end, the board approved funding LCAT, minus any amount awarded to the program through future grants, seven to zero. The measure passed with the caveat of several board members stating intentions to ask organizers about efforts to broaden financial support outside the district before approving LCAT’s funding in the next budget.