In the aftermath of the deadly school shooting in Florida, Wake County commissioners say the local school system needs more social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists. But they disagree about whether to spend more money.
“Students can have challenges like anyone else, and they sometimes bring to school the problems they’re encountering at home,” said Commissioner Matt Calabria. “Teachers and staff do a great job of helping our kids, but they’re often asked to do a number of jobs all at once. Having more trained and qualified mental health professionals would go a long way toward helping students overcome their challenges, and I expect it would improve academic performance as well.”
Last November, after rounds of discussions between the county and schools, commissioners offered school leaders $3.5 million for more social workers and counselors and asked the schools to match that amount. School leaders were reluctant, partly because of the required match but also because they worried that the money would be a one-time appropriation.
In December, commissioners agreed informally to back off the match requirement, though they did not vote to do so, Calabria said. As for a one-time outlay, “because we were talking about a midyear appropriation, we were technically considering ‘one-time’ money,” he said. “But the commissioners working on this had the explicit hope that this would be rolled into a recurring allocation if we moved forward. No one wanted to fund the hiring of new folks only for the money to run out a few months later.”
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For Monika Johnson-Hostler, the school board’s chairwoman, the county’s November offer was a nonstarter. “We weren’t willing to match it,” she said, adding that she did not know if the county communicated its December change of heart to the superintendent’s staff.
Last month, after the Feb. 14 school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, Wake school board members said they needed more money to hire additional counselors.
National groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students. The ratio in Wake is one social worker for every 1,860 students and one counselor for every 630 elementary school students, 372 middle school students and 393 high school students.
Some commissioners say it’s best to now think in terms of the next budget year, which begins July 1.
Like Calabria, Commissioner John Burns said he’s looking forward to a March 17 meeting during which commissioners expect to hear up-to-date budget numbers for both the county and its school system. He said schools need more mental health support staff.
“I’m on the board with the fact that we need those professionals,” he said.
And he thinks his fellow commissioners agree. “I do think we’re united,” he said.
But Commissioner Erv Portman, an occasional critic of Wake schools spending, thinks the schools have the money they need to hire more social workers and counselors. Since 2014, he said, Wake taxpayer support for school operations has climbed by $103.4 million, or 32 percent, from $327.4 million to $430.9 million. Meanwhile, state support for Wake school operations climbed 15 percent, or more than $100 million, from 2014 to 2017, Portman said.
“The board of education determines its own priorities on how to deploy its resources,” Portman said. “If they want to redeploy resources to counselors or social workers, they have the full authority and ability to do so. If they have not, they must have determined those needs are less important than the others that they have chosen to fund.”
Clearly, Portman said,Wake schools have priorities beyond classroom teachers. “The system employs over 19,000 persons, 10,000 which are teachers,” he said.
Commissioner Sig Hutchinson agreed. “We’ve increased their funding almost $100 million in the last three years,” he said, echoing Portman. “The leadership of the school board decides how that money is spent.”
Hutchinson said he understands that school leaders don’t want commissioners telling them how to spend their money. But if commissioners lay out dollars for a specific use, he’d like to see the money spent there. “Give us some indication that it’s truly going to be spent on counselors,” he said.
Last fall, Hutchinson said, commissioners sought that assurance but didn’t get it.
“Clearly, it’s an issue that we need to take very seriously,” he said, referring to the need for more counselors and social workers.
Commissioner Jessica Holmes, the board’s chairwoman, said her support for more counselors for Wake schools was nothing new. “I understand the need to increase the number of nurses, social workers and counselors and have advocated and voted accordingly,” she said.
“The need is made even more apparent in light of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and a recent, alarming article indicating that crime within our school system is on the rise, whereas it is decreasing statewide,” Holmes said. “Evidence shows there has been an increase in the number of cases involving possession of a firearm.”
County and school leaders would be remiss not to act on that evidence, Holmes said.
“We have a problem, and we need to take proactive steps to solve it,” she said. “That’s why I remain committed to making the necessary resources available to our educators and students, before it’s too late.”
Calabria said state lawmakers, who fund the lion’s share of school operations, should be the standard bearers for more social workers and counselors. “The state should be the main source of support for our schools,” he said. “But it continues to provide little help, including funding for school counselors and mental health programs more broadly.”
Wake County, on the other hand, is doing its fair share, if not more, Calabria said. “Alliance Behavioral Health’s CEO recently told us that Wake County was the only county in the state to actually increase its level of support for mental health programs in the last couple of years,” he said. “Wake County has made tremendous headway in helping folks who need it, but I think we’re all looking for ways to improve.”
Calabria said he didn’t want to give the impression he was telling school leaders how to spend their money. “It’s the school system’s prerogative to choose what programs they do and do not put in place, and I want to respect their coequal role,” he said. “The main thing that’s important from my perspective is that they and the public know they’ve got willing commissioners, and we’d be excited about discussing how we can plan for these kinds of expenditures as partners.”
Burns agreed. “We have tried not to attach strings to what they do, but I do want to see if we can help,” he said.
Johnson-Hostler would appreciate the help. “It was a priority for me when I came on the board, and it remains a priority,” she said of hiring more social workers and counselors.