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Montana Ed board upholds librarian, counselor ratios

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Existing staffing ratios for librarians, counselors and administrative positions will stay the same following an enormous outpouring of public comment to the Montana Board of Public Education.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen recommended eliminating state-mandated ratios for those positions in an effort to emphasize local control with accreditation standards, which raised concerns among many education stakeholders.

More than 1,200 public comments were submitted urging the board to retain the current ratios for counselors. Another 1,000 wrote in support of staffing ratios for school librarians, and about 200 public comments were sent in concerning principals and superintendents.

“We have guardrails in place to guide schools,” said board member Anne Keith. “I think ratios are guardrails that I’m not willing to give up since there is a variance to standards process that you can follow to show that your local control can go above and beyond these minimums.”

Throughout the public comment process, many experts and community members voiced concerns that eliminating staffing ratios altogether would allow school boards to cut those positions when their budgets get tight.

Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen disagreed that school boards would “immediately start cutting people” and argued that ratios only hurt smaller, more rural schools.

Board member Tammy Lacey offered a different perspective.

About six years ago when Lacey was working as a superintendent at Great Falls Public Schools, the district needed to cut $1.8 million from its budget. As a result, prevention specialists, student support advocates, intervention teachers, and multiple programs for arts, medical careers and environmental education all received the ax.

“It was not fun, and it was hard work figuring out what to cut,” Lacey said.

She continued that if Arntzen’s recommendations were to make it through, superintendents would have been added to that list of possible cuts. Additionally, librarians, counselors and principals would be vulnerable without staffing ratios.

“And that’s how it’s going to happen because we don’t have enough resources and you cut and remove what you don’t have to have,” she continued.

Despite support from many board members, not all are convinced mandated staffing ratios are the right approach for the board when it comes to their responsibility to set minimum standards for Montana’s schools.

Board member Jane Lee Hamman said that these discussions have been some of the most frustrating in her tenure on the board and maintained her position in favor of more flexibility for schools while also providing guidelines.

“I’m very frustrated that I think the small rural schools are being beaten down by so many rules and certain requirements that we need to have a higher level look at what we’re doing,” said Hamman.

The board did not have enough time to respond to all the submitted comments and still have about 19 sections to go through, including accreditation rules related to professional development, graduation requirements and distance learning. The remaining comments will be addressed at a meeting in January.

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