A shortage of counselors and librarians in Billings elementary schools has state education officials investigating School District 2.
The district has slipped far below the number of counselors and librarians the State Office of Public Instruction requires for accreditation.
“We simply don’t have the resources,” said Jack Copps, School District 2 superintendent.
The state requires a district to have one counselor for every 400 students. The ratio is similar for librarians. Currently in School District 2, eight elementary schools lack the proper number of counselors. For librarians, seven elementary schools and all four middle schools are out of compliance.
OPI officials are expected to visit the district again later this month to follow up on their investigation.
Over the last decade, SD2 has increasingly cut or not replaced counselors and librarians as its budget has shrunk. It’s a practice many districts statewide have adopted, although SD2 stands alone in its violation among AA school districts.
Cutting back the number of counselors and librarians are “the two most violated of the accreditation standards,” said Kirk Miller, superintendent of Bozeman Public Schools and past chairman of the State Board of Education.
Districts that don’t successfully complete the state’s rehabilitation process when they fail to meet a certain accreditation standard can be penalized with funding cuts or a complete loss of state accreditation.
Copps said it’s rare for a school to lose funding or accreditation.
As few as two schools have lost their state accreditation since the state started accrediting schools. The last was Valley Christian School in Missoula 10 years ago, said Jessica Rhoades, communications director for the State Office of Public Instruction.
Even if no penalty occurs, accreditation trouble is a “black mark” for any district, and SD2 will work with state officials to solve the problem, Copps said.
For most districts, the rationale for trimming counselors and librarians is to keep budget cuts from directly affecting the classroom.
“The scarcity of funding is creating choices that have to be made,” Miller said.
For the last decade, Bozeman has used an alternative standard for meeting its counselor accreditation requirements by using youth mentors provided through city nonprofit groups and psychologists.
Helena received approval from the Office of Public Instruction last year to follow a similar model. Schools there are able to include social workers and psychologists in its count of counselors.
Bruce Messinger, superintendent of Helena Public Schools sympathizes with Billings.
“We’ve been there,” he said.
And indeed, smaller districts across the state are in accreditation trouble with the Office of Public Instruction for their dwindling numbers of counselors and librarians.
Statewide, 66 schools are in some form of violation for not having the required number of librarians; 31 schools are in some form of violation for not having the required number of counselors.
But in terms of similar-sized school districts, Billings’ SD2 is the only one in violation. Other AA schools have resolved the issue with corrective plans, said OPI’s Rhoades. “Currently, no other AA schools face similar counseling/librarian issues,” she said.
Copps said the district is working to seek state approval on alternative standards for its counselors, following the leads of Bozeman and Helena.
But meeting the librarians standard will be more difficult, Copps said.
“We don’t have sufficient state resources to meet the accreditation standards,” he said.
It’s a problem statewide, Miller and Messinger said.
Cuts to librarians and counselors “are symptomatic of underfunding for schools,” Messinger said.
Contact Rob Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 406-657-1231.