Lawmakers hear criticism of governor’s youth services plan

By: - October 20, 2022 6:56 am

School administrators, lawmakers, and advocates warn the move to a regional youth-services model would cut services in the state's neediest districts. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

A bicameral legislative panel heard wide-ranging criticism of a Murphy administration proposal to replace a popular school-based youth services program with one that operates using regional hubs.

Under the proposal, a network of 15 regional hubs under the Statewide Student Support Services Network — or NJ4S — would replace a 35-year-old program that directly funds youth services in 91 districts. Administration officials say the change would expand access, but the move has alarmed supporters of the existing program, which offers mental health, drug addiction, and career counseling to students, among other things.

The department’s commissioner, Christine Norbut Beyer, and the plan’s other supporters have pointed to the existing system’s limited scope to justify the shift, noting state-funded school-based services reached between 25,000 and 30,000 students, or about 2% of New Jersey’s public-school enrollees. Critics of the plan have said the number is higher.

“Right now, for example, the city of Newark has 64 public schools. Just two receive in-school supports. In Camden, there are 19 schools. Only six receive services,” Beyer told the Joint Committee on Public Schools Wednesday. “Help for some of our most at-risk youth is currently lacking in our schools. NJ4S will change that.”

She added the move to a hub model would lower administrative costs by reducing duplicative work and better position youth services programs to apply for federal funding.

Superintendents, legislators, and counselors involved in school-based youth services programs have regarded the proposal with skepticism, questioning why the state is moving to sunset a 35-year-old program with a glowing record and why the timeline for replacing it is so short.

The Department of Children and Families intends to award bids to social services firms that will administer each hub in early 2023, and the hub model would replace the school-based model at the start of the 2023-2024 school year.

“If there is going to be a movement away from school-based, you’ve got to give them a runway,” said David Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District.

Aderhold added that “there is no way they will be ready for July 1,” citing the bidding process, hiring, and other obstacles.

Supporters of school-based services pointed to the accessibility of in-school aid and trust between students and in-house counselors, whose positions are paid with state funds. A regional system would be unable to compete, they said, noting federal lawmakers are moving to support the school-based model.

Beyer, who did not take questions and left Wednesday’s meeting after concluding her prepared remarks because of a scheduling conflict, said NJ4S would continue to offer services within schools while expanding to other community institutions like houses of worship or libraries.

It’s not clear whether the breadth of services offered by existing school-based programs would remain the same under the new model. Opponents allege they won’t, and say schools would have to come up with funds to pay for services the new state program would not fund.

“My next move is to consider how I budget to replace it because there is no replacement in a spoke-and-hub model that makes this work the way it does here,” said Trenton Schools Superintendent James Earle. “This is not a modernization or expansion of the current model. It’s an elimination of the current model.”

The recent push toward the hub model marks the second time Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has sought to wind down state funding to the School-Based Youth Services Program.

In 2020, the administration suggested cutting $12 million from the Department of Children and Families’ office of school linked services, which directly funds school-based services in 91 schools spread across 62 districts. The funding was eventually restored, but the attempted cut has led some to question the administration’s motives.

“The commissioner, even though she says she likes the program, point in fact is two years ago she tried to eliminate the program,” said Edward Tetelman, the former Department of Human Services assistant commissioner who developed the School Based Youth Services Program. “She really doesn’t like the program. She has her own program that she wants to implement for their legacy.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.