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First Reading: ‘Pitting the good against the good’

Published (2/4/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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The Westbrook-Walnut Grove school district had some boom years in the last decade. Now losing students and facing a $400,000 deficit, it could lay off a half-time school counselor, but state law prevents the change.

Due to an influx of Hmong families in 2001, enrollment in the southwestern Minnesota district grew from 450 to 525 in two years, said Superintendent Loy Woelber, eventually topping out near 600.

In 2003, he hired a second counselor, bringing the student-to-counselor ratio to 275:1. That’s close to the American School Counselors Association recommendation of 250:1. The district later arranged to share one counselor with a neighboring district, before a “maintenance of effort” mandate enacted in 2007 required districts to retain certain licensed student support personnel.

But the district’s enrollment has dipped to 440 and continues to fall by 20 students a year, and as the students go, so goes the state revenue.

“My feeling is we could use that money in the classroom more than the counselor,” said Gene Kronback, the school board’s president for 24 years. But his hands are tied by the state mandate.

Allow for local control

A bill sponsored by Rep. Connie Doepke (R-Orono) would help Kronback put money where he feels it is most needed.

HF88 would remove a $3 set-aside per pupil of the $30 per pupil Safe Schools Levy, and the maintenance of effort provision. The set-aside generates a small amount of dedicated revenue that must be spent only on licensed counselors, nurses, social workers psychologists and chemical dependency counselors. The maintenance of effort provision ensures a district’s current level of those student support staff is retained from year to year, measured either by total funding for those positions or by the number of positions. Unlike teachers, they are exempt from seniority rules governing who may be laid off if districts face budget reductions.

“Maintenance of effort creates a privileged group that cannot have cuts under any circumstances,” Doepke said. “I am in any way not against nurses, counselors or anyone that works with our students. Certainly in these times everyone’s important and we need to pull together.” She simply wants school boards to have the flexibility to decide which employees will best serve their students.

The House Education Finance Committee approved the bill Feb. 1 and sent it to the House Taxes Committee. It has no Senate companion.

Opponents of the measure say young people face greater need for support than ever and fear cuts to student support staff if it’s implemented.

Passion on both sides of the issue

Kris Moe, a licensed counselor at Park High School in Cottage Grove and president of the Minnesota School Counselors Association, said high school counselors are typically spread thin; acting as student assessment coordinators; college guidance counselors; addressing individual students’ mental health issues such as depression or family crises; and sometimes school-wide issues, such as the aftermath of tragic events.

A 2009 survey conducted by the MSCA and Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan think tank, indicated 90 percent of counselors had helped students deal with interpersonal and family problems, depression, aggressive or disruptive behavior, anxiety and ADHD in the prior 12 months, and 76 percent said student mental health care needs had increased in the prior 24 months.

Walter Roberts Jr., a professor of Counselor Education and Professional Counseling Programs at Minnesota State University, Mankato, told members about results of his recent informal survey. Of 31 districts responding, counselors reported 157 suicide attempts and eight suicides during the past two-and-a-half school years, which might indicate a rising trend if the numbers play out across all districts.

Roberts said the maintenance of effort provision was designed to stop the “hemorrhaging” of student services personnel and that because it’s only been in effect for a year, there is no evidence that it isn’t working. Minnesota consistently ranks near

49th in the nation, with a student-to-counselor ratio of 759:1, according to 2008-2009 U.S. Department of Education statistics.

“There are times when government has to step up to the plate and do the right thing. This is one of those times,” Roberts said.

Yet even $167 million in federal “EduJobs” money intended to help Minnesota districts retain school staff didn’t prompt hiring, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

He supports the bill not because he thinks Minnesota has enough counselors, but because the law creates a “disincentive” to hire counselors.

“I am not aware of one of those positions that was hired with that money, and the reason is simple,” said Croonquist. “Because when the money went away they would have to use their dwindling resources to fill that in.”

Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL-Richfield), an eighth-grade teacher, said the issue is not about numbers, but about kids.

“Tim,” she said, referring to a student, “I told him his father had been murdered.”

“My favorite student took four bullets to the head,” she continued. “My Hmong girls were married at 14, and then came back to school — some. My Hmong boys were in gangs. The counselor, the psychiatrist, psychologists, the school nurse does a whole lot of counseling. And a lot of kids spend a lot of time in the nurse’s office because they’ve got a hangnail and they need to talk to somebody. But these are valuable resources.”

“Please maintain the effort,” she said.

Counselors develop another model

Moe understands the requirement is a burden on some school districts.

“It’s a very good argument,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. … It’s like you’re pitting the good against the good. You’ve got the school board who wants the best for kids, the administration, who wants the best, and so do the teachers and counselors.”

Moe and other counselors are spearheading a new model of service delivery and peer support through the School Counseling Service Center at the Adler Graduate School in Richfield. Amy Wojciechowski, the center’s coordinator, said one goal is to provide more preventive services earlier in students’ lives. They’re creating packages of contract counseling services they plan to market to schools, including charter, elementary and alternative learning centers traditionally underserved by counselors. The grant-funded project includes a pilot at Highland Park Elementary School in St. Paul that shows great promise, Wojciechowski said.

In the meantime, counselors continue to juggle students’ personal, social and academic needs.

“It’s about a triage situation,” said Moe. “Maybe the philosophy about this should be, we don’t want a mandate, but as a bare minimum, it’s just a civil safety standard.”

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