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School counselor rule is near finalization

Districts would need 1 aide per 350 students

SHARE School counselor rule is near finalization

Despite budget worries from superintendents, a rule requiring schools to provide more guidance counselors is headed for finalization in January.

If approved by the Utah State Board of Education, school districts will need to have one counselor for every 350 junior high and high school students.

Currently some schools have a counselor-to-student ratio of 1-to-600.

"We know for a fact the kids are not getting the counseling they need," said board member Dixie Allen.

The proposal also states counselors shouldn't be doing clerical work such as administering tests or changing class schedules.

If approved at the board's Jan. 8 meeting, the requirement will be implemented for the 2009-10 school year.

School district superintendents statewide like the idea of having more school counselors but question how to pay for such a mandate in tough budget times. Further, they take issue with the state board meddling with how districts spend their money.

"Place the rule on the shelf for better times and allow local districts to work with their patrons to determine where valued tax dollars should be spent," said Steve Peterson, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

Superintendents unanimously passed a motion against the board's proposal at a recent association meeting.

Weber School District Superintendent Michael Jacobsen said making a decision right now would "defy logic and common sense."

School counselors in Utah earn an average $60,455 a year, including benefits.

State board members say if they always waited for money to be available for education, nothing would ever happen. "If it's the right thing to do, there is no right time to do it except right now," Allen said.

Outgoing board member Teresa Theurer said the board understands and has addressed the superintendents' concerns. School districts that believe they can't afford the mandate will be required to submit a plan describing how they are working toward a counselor-student ratio of 1-to-350.

"We don't expect big changes this year," Theurer said. "We understand the economic times right now. But we look forward to seeing change as conditions improve."

Provo School District Superintendent Randy Merrill says it's an issue of local governance.

The district has used survey to determine patrons' education preferences. "While guidance counseling is important, it was not a priority suggested by our focus groups," Merrill said.

As a former principal, he said, he supports the goals of guidance counseling. "However, as a superintendent, I am now planning for the realities of unmatched economic turbulence," he said, noting it would cost the district $150,000 to meet the proposed rule.

Jacobsen agrees with Merrill in it being a local issue. "A local board, not the state board, is the proper entity to determine how district funds are spent," Jacobsen said. "This proposal improperly usurps the authority of local boards to do what is best for their communities."

State board member Kim Burningham said he has some "serious reservations and concerns" of the pressure being put on superintendents during this financial crunch. However, he said he feels the issue is important and the bill has been modified considerably from the original. "It now says, 'Work toward this goal."'

"It's really best for kids in the long run," he said.

Iron County School District Superintendent Jim Johnson said, "The question during our downturn of the economy is, 'How does it compare to other programs that also need support?' It is not top on our priority list right now. ... We are looking at direct classroom support first."

Eighty percent of the districts are within one or two positions of meeting the 1-to-350 ratio, said Dawn Kay-Stevenson, coordinator for student services and comprehensive guidance, career and technical education for the Utah State Office of Education.

A total of 19 districts meet the standard, she said.

"And we have a commitment from Wasatch School District, even in this hard economic time, to meet that ratio in this next year," she said.

E-mail: astewart@desnews.com