Experts sidelined so Reynolds gets ‘credit’ for mental health program

July 19, 2021 8:00 am

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a news conference Aug. 4, 2020, at Iowa PBS. (Screenshot from Iowa PBS livestream)

If a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth, as journalist Michael Kinsley famously wrote, what do you call it when a bureaucrat blurts out the real story about a politician?

That may be what happened last week, when an official from the Iowa Department of Education was apparently trying to mollify members of the state board on children’s behavioral health. These governor-appointed board members, along with other experts in children’s mental health, were not consulted before Gov. Kim Reynolds rolled out a new, $20 million children’s mental health center.

“A lot of it has to do with making sure that Gov. Reynolds gets credit for such a great idea,” Amy Williamson explained to board members. “We don’t tell the whole state before she gets the opportunity to do that, because we thought that was really important and actually really exciting.”

Surprise! A politician wants to bigfoot the credit for a program most likely developed by someone else using federal COVID-19 relief money that is coming to the state through very little effort of her administration.

It’s typical, but that’s not what’s really wrong with this picture. The point is that Reynolds is presenting a $20 million program as a fait accompli, without consulting many, if any, of the Iowa experts outside academia and state government about what they actually need and think will work. The behavioral health board members who were left in the dark include people with direct experience related to children’s mental health.

Beyond the board, representatives of the state associations representing school counselors and school psychologists said they were also sidelined, even though they’re the people who have direct responsibility for students who may be facing mental health or behavioral challenges.

None of this should be considered a criticism of the program, which will create a Center for Student Mental Health operating out of the University of Iowa’s Baker Teacher Leader Center. The plan calls for expanding the services already offered by the university center. The main purposes will include educating teachers about identifying mental health issues, researching school mental health practices and providing a clinical service for students and educators.

I haven’t heard anyone suggest this program is a bad idea. But since nobody knew there would be $20 million to address children’s mental health, we have no way of knowing whether anyone had a better idea for how to use this money. We didn’t get to hear whether the University of Northern Iowa, which has the largest program in the state for educating teachers, might have had something to offer.

What we have heard from stakeholders is the shortage of mental health providers in much of the state will make identifying more kids’ mental health issues a waste of time if there’s no outlet for treatment.

Reynolds hasn’t mentioned engaging state legislators in this enterprise or said what will happen to this program when Uncle Sam’s cash dries up. She made the announcement after the legislative session ended and she’s been spending federal COVID-19 relief funds without any oversight from the GOP majority. What we have heard often from GOP lawmakers is a reluctance to spend one-time money, like federal pandemic relief, on an ongoing program like mental health for children.

This wouldn’t be the first time legislators have been left to pick up the tab for Reynolds’ no-bid deals. After the feds refused to pay for a long-planned Workday human resources software upgrade with pandemic aid, the Legislature had to pony up $21 million to cover the contract. And while the feds did cover the $26 million Test Iowa contract, you may recall Reynolds committed that dough after a tip from actor Ashton Kutcher, without shopping around for a better deal.

Reynolds would have gotten the credit for this program even without all the secrecy. It’s just one of the many benefits of being the governor. But when she opts for grandstanding instead of collaboration, and sweetheart deals instead of competitive bids, she’s shortchanging Iowans for her own political benefit. That’s not a gaffe, it’s just a shame.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.