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Students could have improved access to school counselors and support staff

Joey Matthews testifies in the House Education Finance Division on HF1363, sponsored by Rep. John Huot, right, which would provide grants are for school districts to hire additional school support services personnel. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Looking to make schools safer, legislators are considering myriad options, including increasing mental health support services for students. 

Sponsored by Rep. John Huot (DFL-Rosemount), HF1363 would appropriate additional funds for the “Support our Students” grant program.

The bill is an extension of a legislatively driven grant program, enacted in 2016 with a onetime appropriation of $12.13 million. It was created to enable school districts to hire support staff, such as counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses.

HF1363 was held over by the House Education Finance Division Thursday for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion, SF1521, sponsored by Sen. Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury), awaits action by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.

According to a memo from the Minnesota School Counselors Association, more than 100 schools applied for the initial grants, which far exceeded the available funding. While a starting point, the state still spends less than half of the national average on student support services, and nationally has one of the highest student to support staff ratios.

Scott Osthus, a licensed school counselor at Rosemount High School, was one of several advocates who said this is problematic because these personnel are often on the frontline of mental health interventions for students. Joey Matthews, a history teacher with District 196, added that support staff enable him to focus on teaching rather than helping students in matters he’s not well versed in.

“Hiring more support professionals helps the students with the most needs, we all know that,” Matthews said. “It also benefits the hundreds of students I teach every day because these professionals give me more time and energy to focus on being the best teacher I can be.”

The proposal would appropriate $30 million in Fiscal Year 2020 and $20 million in Fiscal Year 2021 from the General Fund. Schools without existing support personnel would be given priority.

Recipients would receive funding over six years, on a matching basis of 1-to-1 for the first four years, and 3-to-1 the last two years. The goal being that eventually schools would choose to retain those staff members even after the grant funding expires.

“We felt this approach recognizes the tough spot that many districts are in when it comes to making new hires,” Huot said. “The phase out of this funding is a recognition that as a support professional becomes ingrained, more a part of the staff, they will actually get hired by the school, and that’s what we’re seeing with your current grants.”

Rep. Ron Kresha (R-Little Falls) supports the bill, but suggested adding clarifying language to ensure grants go toward hiring new personnel, as opposed to funding existing staff members. He also asked if Huot would consider an ongoing funding approach — with a focus on reducing the student to support staff ratio — rather than grant funding.

Huot said he’d be happy to work with him on changes and language modifications.

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