Montana Board of Education rejects OPI proposal, keeps school staffing quotas

The Montana Board of Public Education (BPE) at its Nov. 17 meeting rejected an Office of Public Instruction (OPI) proposal to increase the student-to-staff ratio for counselors, librarians and teaching assistants in public schools. The board made the decision after hundreds of educators, parents and school officials across the state spoke out against OPI’s proposals, citing students’ mental health crises and learning needs as their top concerns.

While many educators called the decision a victory for students, OPI described it as a blow to the district’s independence as schools struggle to keep up with hiring demands.

In July, OPI made recommendations to the BPE to amend Chapter 55 of the Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM), which mandates accreditation standards for Montana public schools. The July recommendations were the culmination of a change process initiated by OPI Superintendent Elsie Artzen in fall 2020, aimed at inventorying and revising the existing rules.

The final recommendations, which OPI presented to the board on July 22, included a number of language and policy changes, including the elimination of the student-staff ratio in a number of areas.

Currently, Montana schools are required to hire one full-time school counselor for every 400 students in elementary, middle, and high school. Districts with fewer than 126 students may contract a licensed Class 6 counselor or school specialist or participate in a multiple district arrangement or cooperative to meet student needs, a rule common to small, rural districts .

OPI’s July report met these conditions and instead recommended allowing schools to hire counselors based on “the needs of the district consistent with national and state standards” and “the ability of individual counselors to provide school counseling programs and services.” in consultation with the local population boards of trustees.

Other recommendations included changes to the quota rules for school librarians and teaching assistants.

Montana schools with more than 125 students are currently required to employ 0.5 full-time library media specialists for every 250 students, and schools with 125 students or fewer are permitted to contract library media specialists as part of multi-district cooperatives. OPI recommended eliminating these requirements and allowing individual schools and districts to hire library staff based on their own needs assessments.

The report also eliminated a rule requiring required teaching aids to be used for a minimum of 1.5 hours per day, per student overload, for up to six hours per school day in crowded classrooms. OPI recommended replacing this policy with a rule stating that “the school district must allocate additional staffing resources if the maximum class size is exceeded” and leaving the number of teaching assistants in the classrooms up to individual schools.

OPI’s recommendations drew a slew of public comments from educators, parents and school staff opposed to removing the ratios. Hundreds of commenters expressed concern about the burgeoning youth mental health crisis, the case numbers of overworked school counselors and the barriers to student learning that could arise if schools were allowed to cut staff.

“It is ill advised to restrict student access to school counselors at a time when we need more student support than ever before,” Whitefish Middle School counselor Lacy Eccles wrote in a May comment to OPI. “Removing the ratios means some counties will not make having school counselors a priority and students’ emotional well-being will suffer as a result.”

“Access to librarians opens the door to a child’s creativity, imagination, critical thinking and sense of belonging. School counselors provide important resources to support students who are struggling with a variety of obstacles,” wrote Samantha Jones, school counselor at Columbia Falls Junior High School. “I’m on the front lines, in the trenches with the actual Montana students. And those recommendations are not only bad, they would be devastating.”

Ultimately, BPE’s decision to reject the ratio eliminations was in large part due to overwhelming public comment, BPE executive director McCall Flynn told Beacon Nov. 21.

“It felt like a very drastic change,” Flynn said of OPI’s proposal.

In an email to Beacon last week, OPI communications director Brian O’Leary expressed his disappointment on behalf of the office that the Board of Public Education had rejected the proposed changes. O’Leary explained that OPI aimed to introduce an “outcomes-based education system” and not one “designed to protect an adult’s jobs,” stressing that schools must continue to have licensed counselors and librarians even if they do the case is the eliminated relationships.

“Districts know the unique needs of their students and community far better than state or federal governments,” O’Leary wrote. “The state should not interfere in personnel matters, but systematically demand accountability.”

Rob Watson, executive director of School Administrators of Montana, acknowledged the hiring pressures facing many districts that could be alleviated by eliminating current quotas. However, Watson described the quotas as a “minimum standard” and balance statewide that allows all students to receive the guidance and support they need, regardless of where they live. Instead of eliminating requirements, the state should focus on finding qualified personnel.

“It seems short-sighted to lower standards to try and fix the problem,” Watson said.

The decisions of the Board of Public Education will be summarized in an Adoption Notice and will be posted to the Montana Administrative Registry in early 2023 before officially becoming effective.