An advisory committee's months-long debate over school counselor regulations ended Friday in a stalemate, with some members continuing to defend a state-mandated counselor ratio and others arguing for the ratio's elimination.

A state education committee tasked with advising the Montana Board of Education on changes to school quality regulations deadlocked Friday as it debated whether to support abandoning a requirement that Montana schools employ at least one school counselor for every 400 students.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elise Arntzen and some rural school administrators have argued that mandating a ratio is “not necessary” and that local officials are better positioned to recognize the needs of their schools’ students.

The issue had fueled months of disagreement on the Office of Public Instruction’s Chapter 55 Negotiated Rulemaking Committee, and triggered an avalanche of public comment in May predominantly favoring the continuation of a student-to-school counselor ratio. A task force selected by Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen had earlier recommended lowering Montana’s existing ratio of one counselor for every 400 students to one counselor per 300 students, a figure that more closely aligns with national standards established by the American School Counselor Association. The recommendations Arntzen forwarded to the rulemaking committee contained no ratios.

The committee did succeed in reaching consensus on proposed changes to 49 other regulations governing Montana schools, agreeing, for example, to eliminate ratio requirements for school librarians. Those recommendations, along with a description of the committee’s discussions of the counselor ratio, will be forwarded to the Montana Board of Public Education for review at an August 15 meeting. The regulations set various standards for classroom sizes, academic offerings and other details that OPI uses to determine a school’s accreditation status. Violations of those regulations may result in the state requiring corrective action, and appear on an annual public report compiled by OPI.

According to accreditation data presented to the Board of Public Education by OPI in a separate meeting Friday, 14 schools in Montana employed unlicensed school counselors during the 2021-22 school year — twice as many as the year prior. The OPI report also said that seven schools had insufficient full-time equivalent school counselor levels and 10 had no school counselor FTEs at all.  

Debate over rules governing school counseling and library services dominated what was originally slated to be the committee’s last meeting before passing recommendations to the education board June 30. Members agreed to add this week’s meeting to their timeline in an effort to resolve both issues. The committee agreed Friday to a series of tweaks to language that members said would safeguard school librarians as essential staff while granting flexibilities to districts struggling to fill vacant librarian positions. But the divide over the counseling issue persisted despite three additional hours of discussion over proposed compromises.

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Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Sharyl Allen led one side of the debate, arguing that ratios do not lead to better mental health or academic performance outcomes for students. Her statements Friday were in line with previous arguments made by Arntzen, who has defended the elimination of state-mandated ratios as a way of granting local school officials greater control and flexibility to meet their district’s needs.

“Ratios aren’t going to fly,” Allen said during Friday’s meeting. She added that she was open to language requiring local school officials to assess the workload placed on individual counselors, but would voice dissent on any proposal that included a number. 

Patti Drake, clerk and business manager for the Whitehall School District, echoed Allen’s concern. Smaller schools already face challenges finding applicants for counseling positions, she said, and continuing to require a specific staffing level to meet accreditation standards could be “setting small districts up to fail.”

Proponents of a counselor ratio have repeatedly countered that absent a state-mandated benchmark, local school officials faced with tight budgets may opt to downsize counseling staffs or outsource those duties to contracted professionals who aren’t specifically trained to deliver the academic and career guidance school counselors offer. Montana School Counselor Association Executive Director Renee’ Schoening argued Friday that the quality of school counseling services is directly related to the quantity of staff offering those services. Montana, she continued, should seek to set a “minimum standard” in its regulations for what a quality school counseling program looks like, and avoid the potential for overloading counselors with more students than they can individually handle.

“It is a big job,” Schoening said, “and it’s hard to do when you have too many students.”

Under the laws governing the committee’s process, dissent from a single member of the 22-member committee was enough to halt any proposal from moving forward.

Dissent from Allen blocked a proposal that included a cap of 300 students per counselor. Then, dissent from Shoening blocked a second vote on language that would have removed the counselor ratio requirement entirely. Afterward, Allen stated that Arntzen will now present her own recommendation on the school counselor rule to the Board of Public Education.

“She has not had it drafted,” Allen told the committee. “She’s going to look at our work today and work from that.”

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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...