$4.1M expected to help Flint kids over water impact

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Grayling Stefek gets his blood tested for lead by Livingston County Medical Reserve Corps registered nurse Brian Jones at Eisenhower Elementary in Flint, Michigan on January 26, 2016.

Detroit A $4.1 million state appropriation that will fund a program to identify all Flint schoolchildren from birth through age 25 and place them on the Flint Health Registry for universal health screening was sent to Michigan lawmakers on Thursday.

Kurt Weiss, spokesman for the State Budget Office, said the office sent a request for an administrative transfer to the Legislature on Thursday to pay for the program, which is part of a court settlement agreement in a lawsuit against state education officials, Flint schools and an intermediate school district.

Weiss said lawmakers don't have to approve the transfer request, but the budget office has to wait for 30 days after the request to send the money to education and health officials for the program.

"This is a very routine request. We send transfer requests over on a routine basis, so while they do have the authority to disapprove, this is routine and will be approved," Weiss said.

The money will go toward staffing and support for the Neurodevelopmental Center in Flint, which will be part of Hurley Hospital and staffed by the Genesee Health System, the county’s mental health provider. There, each child will undergo screening for potential educational disabilities. Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will run the center, to be operational in September.

It will also pay for training teachers and administrators on the program and how to recognize children potentially harmed by lead who may need referrals for treatment.

Greg Little, chief trial counsel for Education Law Center, who represents Flint children along with the ACLU of Michigan and White & Case, said the development was good news that will allow the center to hire staff to assess children.

"It's very positive. We look forward to the full funding and the program getting up and running and quick as possible," Little said. "The real issue is when do they get to start hiring people? ... They need to be up and running."

On Tuesday, Little and other attorneys for Flint’s schoolchildren said they were "hopeful" all portions of the lawsuit against the state education department, Flint schools and an intermediate school district will be resolved this summer through a wide-ranging settlement agreement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan sued Flint Community Schools, the state education department and the Gensee ISD in 2016 in a federal civil rights lawsuit that challenged systemic deficiencies in Flint’s special education program.

The case focused on allegations that the Michigan Department of Education failed to find and serve children with special needs and to address the impact of the water crisis, which potentially put thousands of children at risk of developing a disability or worsening an existing disability.

Two remaining portions of the lawsuit — changes to special education services and proper student discipline procedures — remain unresolved.

Attorneys for the children requested an April 1 trial date from U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Tarnow in Detroit on Tuesday, but told the judge they were working toward a settlement for the entire case. 

Attorneys for the state, Flint school district and the ISD each stood up in court and said they were also working toward a settlement of the entire case.

"I see in front of me ... the ability of people to reach a settlement," Tarnow said on Tuesday.

Little said the parties will return to court this summer once an agreement has been reached between the Michigan Department of Education, Flint Community Schools and the Genesee Intermediate School District on the two remaining aspects of the case.

"(Tarnow) expects us to work hard this summer on this," Little said.

The Genesee ISD began distributing about 25,000 Flint Registry flyers to local school districts last week. It also has a page on its website with information on the registry.

Flint’s water was contaminated with lead when officials used corrosive river water from April 2014 to October 2015 that wasn’t properly treated. In children, lead exposure can result in serious effects on IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement.

Families of Flint children exposed to elevated lead levels in the drinking water can enroll their children in the registry, complete a screening and have their children referred for further assessment by the center, attorneys said.