Bill would boost high school counseling

Cati Vanden Breul

State legislators introduced a bill last week that would allow high schools to allocate more funding to hiring and keeping high school counselors.

Minnesota has one of the worst ratios of high school counselors to students in the country, with an average of 806 students per counselor, according to a Star Tribune article.

The bill aims to increase the “safe schools levy” from $27 to $30 per student and also allow high schools to use part, or all, of the levy for counselors, said Rep. Randy Demmer, R-Hayfield, the bill’s sponsor.

Levies come from local taxpayer funds, and school boards use them to cover various high school costs.

The “safe schools levy” is currently used for police liaisons, drug-prevention programs and other security measures.

“What my bill does is add an additional classification for the use of the (safe schools) levy,” Demmer said.

School boards would be able to use as much of the levy as they wanted to pay for counselors but would not be forced to change how they use any of the money.

“It’s an enabling bill, not a directive one,” Demmer said.

Because many schools are under a tight budget, Demmer said, they have been forced to choose between hiring a teacher and keeping a counselor.

“This is one more avenue to keeping counselors on staff,” Demmer said.

Counselors have felt the effects of the budget cuts, said Kim Friesen, a counselor at South High School in Minneapolis.

“We’ve been overwhelmed; there is not enough time to get everything done,” Friesen said.

She said the high school’s counseling staff was cut from four to two at the beginning of the year. After parents raised money, the school hired two part-time counselors and now has the equivalent of three counselors for approximately 1,900 students, Friesen said.

“But we are still short from before,” she said.

Friesen said class sizes at the high school are increasing, and she isn’t able to dedicate as much time as she would like to each student.

“I have to be optimistic,” she said of Demmer’s bill.

Students with access to counselors tend to be prepared better for college, said Bruce Schelske, director of the University’s TRiO Student Support Services program.

“Students do better if they have a sense of direction and a goal in mind for their education,” Schelske said.

When it comes to graduating from college, a student’s motivation and sense of purpose is just as important, if not more important, than his or her cognitive ability, he said.

“These are things that counselors work with,” he said.

But Schelske said not all high schools will be able to use the extra funds for counselors because they are struggling in many areas.

Schools have had to lay off staff members, close buildings and increase fees for participation in extracurricular activities, he said.

“The (State) Legislature has a very difficult task, because they are trying to divide up not enough resources for too many needs,” Schelske said.

The bill has a good goal, he said.

“But it’s sort of like putting a lifesaving ring in the water for people who are already drowning,” he said.

Legislators will vote on the bill as part of the larger omnibus finance bill in late March or early April, Demmer said.