elsie arntzen
Superintendent Elsie Arntzen offers members of a regulatory review task force an explanation Thursday for her recommended changes to school accreditation rules, including the proposed elimination of a state-mandated school counselor-to-student ratio. Credit: MPAN

Renee’ Schoening said she was “dumbfounded” this week when she read a proposal by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen to eliminate a state-mandated ratio of school counselors to students in Montana’s K-12 public schools. As executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association, Schoening feared the change would undercut student mental health services at a time when they’re critically needed. And as a member of the rulemaking committee charged with reviewing Arntzen’s recommendations, Schoening felt the proposal disrespected a months-long process undertaken by more than two dozen seasoned experts from the public education field.

“We need to have more school counselors, not less,” Schoening told Montana Free Press. “And it needs to be in the [state] standards as a minimum requirement for quality education.”

Arntzen’s proposal arose from the Office of Public Instruction’s ongoing revision of state regulations governing school accreditation in Montana, a process similar to one the agency and the Board of Public Education recently concluded regarding educator licensing rules. Schoening wasn’t alone in expressing shock over the superintendent’s proposal this week. During a virtual meeting of OPI’s Chapter 55 negotiated rulemaking committee Wednesday, more than two dozen people called in with public comment opposing Arntzen’s recommendations. 

Those voices included Katey Franklin, director of Montana State University’s addictions counseling program, who referred to the situation as a “safety issue.” Lee Starck, a school counselor in Stevensville, said he was “disheartened” by the proposal. Jessica Buboltz, a school counselor in Missoula and board chair of the Montana School Counselor Association, called on OPI to not eliminate the ratio but instead lower it to one counselor for every 250 students — the current standard recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

“The people in Montana are in a mental health crisis,” said Katie Loveland, a Helena parent and public health consultant. “According to OPI’s own data, one in five high school students seriously considered attempting suicide in 2001, and one in 10 actually made an attempt. Forty-one percent of our students report symptoms consistent with depression, up 33% in the last four years alone. We have a suicide rate that is double the national rate. … We need in-person, fully staffed counselors in our schools.”

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Loveland spoke quickly to enter her full comment in the record. With 15 minutes slated for public comment on the committee’s agenda, people were allotted 30 seconds each to speak, and many were cut off mid-sentence. Arntzen’s proposed elimination of the counselor ratio wasn’t the only recommendation to garner opposition. People also spoke against her proposal to eliminate Montana’s existing ratios for school librarians, as well as her recommendation to strike language specifying the types of elective classes middle-school students are required to take.

Asked via email about her general goals in proposing the revisions, Arntzen responded that “one-size-fits-all government mandates do not serve the best interests of our communities.” Existing regulations have not served students or teachers, she continued, and it’s time her agency “put the decision-making back in the hands of the people” — meaning local education officials. Asked more specifically why she proposed eliminating the school counselor ratio, Arntzen said she intended to give local school districts “more flexibility” in determining “what works best for their unique needs.”

“It must be recognized that Montana students and families are in a mental health crisis after two years in a pandemic,” Arntzen wrote “After three decades of a ratio for counselors to students, Montana is still at the bottom for youth suicide. There are 31 states that don’t have ratios.”

According to the American School Counselor Association, 20 states currently do not mandate school counseling services. Eight other states have no mandated counselor ratio, but do require schools to host counseling services. The association also releases annual per-state ratios of counselors to students, which show that Montana had an average of one counselor for every 291 students during the 2020-21 school year. The states with the three highest ratios that year were Arizona (1 to 716), Illinois (1 to 665) and Michigan (1 to 638); all three lack state-mandated school counseling requirements.

Arntzen offered a similar explanation for her proposals Thursday to OPI’s Chapter 55 school quality task force, which is charged with discussing potential rule changes and submitting recommendations to Arntzen. The debate about the proposals spilled over into that meeting as well. Bozeman Public Schools trustee Gary Lusin, a member of the task force, stated that school counseling services are “critical” to a quality education in Montana and said the sudden change by Arntzen made the task force’s work feel like a “scam process.”

“I feel the superintendent owes this task force specific rationale on why she changed the recommendations of this task force,” Lusin said. “It’s spent a lot of time to really delve into this and put things in place that can be critical for quality education in the state. Certainly counseling right now is more important than ever across our state for students, and to minimize that and essentially eliminate it is not wise.” 

Task force member Jon Konen, superintendent of the Corvallis public school district, concurred, suggesting that eliminating state-level requirements for counseling and other services might lead cash-strapped districts to cut those services.

“It will absolutely do harm. How could the person who is supposed to be charged with the responsibility of ensuring quality education for every student be making a recommendation like that? It’s mind-blowing to me.”

Renee’ Schoening, executive director, Montana School Counselor Association

Konen further expressed concern that Arntzen’s proposals appeared to ignore a recommendation the task force unanimously approved this spring: to lower Montana’s current ratio of one counselor per 400 students to one counselor per 300 students. From her position on the rulemaking committee, Schoening was similarly surprised. She said the task force’s recommendation, while still shy of the national recommended ratio, at least suggested progress in strengthening counseling services that have become ever more critical for students and teachers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schoening believes the proposed elimination of the ratio sends the opposite message to Montana’s public school system: that school counselors are non-essential personnel.

“It will absolutely do harm,” Schoening said of Arntzen’s proposed change. “How could the person who is supposed to be charged with the responsibility of ensuring quality education for every student be making a recommendation like that? It’s mind-blowing to me.”

The rulemaking committee will continue to discuss revisions to Chapter 55 through the end of June. At that point, Arntzen will review and potentially amend its final recommendations before submitting her proposed changes to the Board of Public Education for consideration later this summer.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...