Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen cited wanting to emphasize local control when she explained to a group of educators Thursday why she is proposing rules to require fewer school counselors and librarians in some situations.
Arntzen’s plan is in some cases the “exact opposite” of what her task force assigned to look at updating the existing rules suggested, one member of the group said in a Thursday meeting.
In one case, the task force voted unanimously to lower the ratio of school counselors to students from 400-to-1 to 300-to-1 in both K-8 and high schools. Arntzen instead suggested each school system needed a minimum of just one counselor or to contract for the services of one.
“I firmly believe that mental health is in a crisis and we must come out of it and give an opportunity, but a ratio is not the manner of doing it,” Arntzen told the task force at the end of their day-long meeting. “It is local control so that students’ needs and families can be met where they are needed and not at a check-the-box opportunity.”
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But members of the School Quality Task Force said lowering the minimum standard was instead dangerous in a state where nearly 10% of students attempted suicide in the past school year.
Gary Lusin, the chair of the Bozeman Public Schools Board of Trustees, said the recommendations went counter to what schools are experiencing in terms of increased mental health issues among students.
“To me this is going exactly the opposite direction of where we should be going relative to what is the reality of schools today,” Lusin said.
Jon Konen, the former superintendent for Corvallis School District who recently resigned because he’s moving, said lowering the number of required counselors would only put more of a strain on those already in schools and possibly lead them to quit.
“The counseling piece, I feel like it’s the exact opposite of what we proposed and voted on and had a unanimous vote on the task force this last time when we proposed the 300-to-1 ratio,” Konen said. “ … What came out of the superintendent’s proposal was the opposite.”
Tony Warren, the Turner Public Schools district superintendent and principal, said the proposal would also overburden counselors working at schools now and make them unable to help the kids they’re already trying to serve.
Arntzen said she understood the pressures on counselors but she didn’t believe setting a ratio was the way to address the issue.
“I think we can all agree here that Montanans, the United States and possibly everyone in the entire world, had loss — family, community, economic — throughout the last two years. And how we come out of that crisis, how we come out of a mental health understanding of what we should do in our schools, is something that should be done at the local level,” Arntzen said.
She continued: “ … How are we serving our children with mental health? Is a quota responsible? I’m saying it’s not.”
Arntzen said she wanted to work in the upcoming legislative session next year to get more state funding to address mental health in schools.
Other suggestions made by Arntzen that went counter to the task force’s recommendations include lowering the number of librarians required for some sizes of schools and allowing them to be spread across a district instead of a minimum number required for each school.
Arntzen again pointed to a desire for local control and said that most schools because of their size wouldn’t see a major change from her proposal. However, her changes would also strike a requirement about where a school library should be housed and move to a school system minimum and not one set by individual schools.
“It’s under the discretion of a locally elected school board,” Arntzen said. “ … In my theme, where accreditation and school quality should be not at the federal level, not at the state level, but by locally elected trustees that know their families, know their community, know their resources, and understand their children.”
Konen said he was frustrated the task force put in more than 50 hours of work but some of its recommendations were not taken.
“If all this time and effort we put into making decisions on these next topics are, I don’t now if the word is ignored but just different or changed, we have several people here that are taking time away from their schools or their other jobs to help do what’s right for kids,” Konen said. “I don’t believe some of these recommendations are what’s best for our schools or what’s best for our kids.”
Arntzen at one point told the task force there were places where they agreed when it came to some rule suggestions.
“We agree on so much and we have a lot more work to do,” Arntzen said.
Janelle Beers, the executive director of the Montana Small Schools Alliance, said that she knew there would be changes, but didn’t realize that when the rule-making committee got recommendations May 18 it wouldn’t be clear which came from their task force and which came from Arntzen.
“I have a lot of trouble even having my name associated with some of those things,” Beers said.
Lusin said while local control was good, he wanted to see at least basic minimum standards in place across the state to ensure a quality education for all Montana students.
“If you remove that, the local control can totally disrupt the education system because they have no standards they have to comply with,” Lusin said, adding that while he supports local control, it needs “some sideboards and some guidelines.”
McCall Flynn, the executive director of the Board of Public Education (BPE), said accreditation standards are minimums set by BPE and the state constitution gives the board the duty to “exercise general supervision over the public school system” that includes setting standards.
“That is our job — is to create those minimum standards,” Flynn said. “ … By removing all standards and leaving all of those flexibilities to school districts, I think that then says the Board of Public Education is not doing our job.”
In Thursday’s meeting, the task force voted 7-1 to go through the recommendations that were made to the rule-making committee the day prior and establish what suggestions came from the task force and which from Arntzen.
David Pafford, the chair of the school board for Noxon Public Schools, was the dissenting vote and ended up withdrawing from the task force because he said the work Thursday went beyond their scope.
“I’ve got to bail out of this,” said Pafford, who also said he took a call from the superintendent before the meeting started. “ … Take my name off the task force.”
Pafford said he thought the task force was “starting to look more like a negotiating-rules committee” and he did not want to be involved going forward.
Those who want to comment on the proposed rules can do so by emailing Ch55PublicComment@mt.gov.