At its Nov. 17 meeting, the Montana Board of Public Education (BPE) rejected an Office of Public Instruction (OPI) proposal to scrap student-to-staff ratios for counselors, librarians and teacher aides. in public schools. The board made the decision after hundreds of educators, parents and school employees across the state voiced their opposition to OPI’s suggestions, citing students’ mental health crises and needs. learning as primary concerns.
While many educators called the decision a victory for students, OPI described it as a blow to the district’s independence as schools struggle to meet hiring requirements.
In July, the OPI submitted recommendations to the BPE to amend Chapter 55 of the Montana Administrative Rules (ARM), which dictates Montana’s public school accreditation standards. The July recommendations were the culmination of an amendment process initiated by OPI Superintendent Elsie Artzen in the fall of 2020, which sought to catalog and revise existing rules.
The final recommendations, submitted by the OPI to the board on July 22, included a series of language and policy changes, including the elimination of student-staff ratios in a number of areas.
Currently, schools in Montana are required to employ one full-time school counselor for every 400 elementary, middle, and high school students. Districts with fewer than 126 students are allowed to hire a licensed counselor or Class 6 school specialist, or participate in a multidistrict agreement or cooperative to meet student needs, a rule that often applies to smaller districts. rural.
The OPI’s July report met those ratios and instead recommended allowing schools to hire counselors based on “district needs consistent with national and state standards” and “individual counselors’ ability to provide school counseling programs and services”, in consultation with local authorities. the administration’s advice.
Other recommendations involved changes to the ratio rules for school librarians and teaching assistants.
Montana schools with more than 125 students are currently required to employ 0.5 full-time library media specialists for every 250 students, and schools with 125 or fewer students are permitted to hire library media specialists in the framework of multi-district cooperatives. The OPI recommended eliminating these requirements and allowing individual schools and districts to hire library staff based on their own needs assessments.
The report also eliminated a rule that required teaching aids to be assigned to overcrowded classrooms for a minimum of 1.5 hours per day, per overload of students, up to six hours per school day. The OPI recommended replacing this guideline with a rule that “the school district shall provide additional human resources when it exceeds the maximum class size,” leaving the number of teaching assistants in classrooms to individual schools. .
The OPI’s recommendations were met with a slew of public comments from educators, parents and school employees who opposed eliminating the ratios. Hundreds of commenters have expressed concern about the growing youth mental health crisis, the workload of overworked school counselors and the barriers to student learning that could arise if schools were able to cut staff.
“It is unwise to limit student access to school counselors at a time when we need more support than ever for students,” wrote Lacy Eccles, counselor at Whitefish Middle School, in a comment to OPI in May. “Removing the ratios will mean that some districts will not prioritize the presence of school counselors, and the emotional well-being of students will suffer.”
“Access to librarians opens the door to children’s creativity, imagination, critical thinking and sense of belonging. School counselors provide vital resources to help students struggling with a plethora of barriers,” wrote Samantha Jones, school counselor at Columbia Falls Junior High School. “I’m on the front line, in the trenches with the real students of Montana. And these recommendations are not only bad, they would be devastating.
Ultimately, BPE’s decision to reject the ratio eliminations was due in large part to the overwhelming public comments, BPE chief executive McCall Flynn told The Beacon Nov. 21.
“It felt like a very drastic change,” Flynn said of OPI’s proposal.
In an email to The Beacon last week, OPI communications director Brian O’Leary expressed disappointment on behalf of the office that the Board of Public Education had rejected the proposed changes. O’Leary said the OPI aims to institute an ‘outcomes-based education system’ rather than one ‘that is designed to protect an adult’s jobs’, and stressed that schools would still be held to have licensed counselors and librarians, even with the ratios eliminated.
“Districts know the unique needs of their students and community far better than the state or federal government,” O’Leary wrote. “The state should not interfere in personnel issues, but should hold to account as part of a systematic approach.”
Rob Watson, executive director of Montana School Administrators, acknowledged the hiring constraints faced by many districts, which could be eased by eliminating the current ratios. However, Watson called the ratios a “minimum standard” and a statewide equalizer that ensures all students, regardless of where they live, receive the guidance and support they need. Rather than eliminating requirements, he said the state should focus on finding qualified personnel.
“It seems short-sighted to lower the standards in an attempt to fix the problem,” Watson said.
Decisions of the Board of Public Education will be compiled into an adoption notice and posted to the Montana Administrative Registry in early 2023 before officially taking effect.