Proposed changes to state-mandated student-staff ratios for school trustees dominated a public hearing held by the Board of Public Education on Monday as the rule-making process continues.
About 15 people at the hearing urged the board to maintain the current 400:1 student-to-state counselor ratio for state credentialing standards during their comments, rather than eliminating it altogether. Among those commentators were seven Missoula councillors, administrators and parents.
“Keeping this ratio in place sets a minimum standard for Montana schools and is the first step to ensuring students have access to much-needed services, including mental health supports,” said Hellgate counselor Jessica Buboltz. High School and board member with the Montana School Counselors Association.
Buboltz and several other commentators also encouraged board members to further reduce the counselor ratio to 250:1, as recommended by the American School Counselor Association.
Rule revisions recommended by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen would allow Montana schools to have fewer librarians and counselors by eliminating ratios that were previously required. In May, Arntzen told a task force reviewing the rules that his recommendations were intended to emphasize local control.
“I strongly believe that mental health is in crisis and you have to come out of it and give an opportunity, but a ratio is not the way to do it,” Arntzen said in May. “This is about local control so that student and family needs can be met where they are needed and not about an opportunity to tick the box.”
Many commenters at Monday’s public hearing were skeptical of eliminating counselor ratios because they could lead to even less support for students amid growing mental health needs. They also feared that the increased workload of school counselors would lead to burnout.
“We need to be sure that we are doing our best to retain the staff that we have and give them adequate workloads so that they continue the excellent work that they are doing and also so that they can mentor the new hand. -manpower we will need with the retreat. that we know is coming,” added Diane Fladmo, director of public policy for the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents a majority of state teachers and specialists.
Erica Zinf, student services coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools, addressed the issue of staffing shortages in her commentary and pointed out that the Office of Public Instruction had previously given stipends to districts that could not. fill certain positions.
“If we completely eliminate the requirement, it allows districts to not even try to search for school counselors,” Zinf said. “It also sends the message that student welfare in Montana is not important.”
Zack Wakeland, senior at Capital High School in Helena, spoke about the importance of school counselors in his educational experience. Since he was in elementary schools, counselors and other mental health staff have intervened with his mental health issues due to childhood trauma, he said.
As a high school student, he also saw firsthand the heightened needs of his peers. While supporting one of her friends, Wakeland suggested they speak with a professional at school. The friend replied that they felt their issues were “not important”.
“If access to mental health assistance is further restricted, there would be no one to turn to if and when they need someone to talk to,” Wakeland said. “Furthermore, with no one to turn to, students may believe that their issues are unimportant, which is why access to adequate mental health support in schools is needed more than ever.”
Workloads for librarians, school administrators and those working in special education have been burning issues throughout the Montana Administrative Rules Chapter 55 review.
A review task force earlier in the process voted unanimously to lower the ratio of school counselors to 300 to 1. Despite the task force’s recommendation, Arntzen suggested that every school system needed a minimum a single advisor or to contract services for one.
Over the summer, another committee of education stakeholders grappled with Arntzen’s recommendations. The process was supposed to end in June, but a stalemate surrounding just four rules — including council and librarian ratios — pushed the timeline back.
Earlier this fall, the The Council on Public Education heard from expert panelists to gauge their thoughts on the proposed rule changes. Overwhelmingly, their comments raised concerns that staffing ratios for superintendents, directors, librarians, and counselors were being eliminated from Arntzen’s recommendations.
The public comment period for the proposed revisions to the Chapter 55 rules is open until 5 p.m. on November 4. Comments may be submitted to [email protected] or by mail to McCall Flynn at PO Box 200601 Helena, Montana, 59620.