The Montana Board of Public Education plans to keep the existing relationship between students and librarians, school counselors, and superintendents, contrary to the Office of Public Instruction’s recommendation to abolish the minimum requirements.

The board also plans to maintain the student-principal relationship, which OPI recommended changing.

However, at a meeting last week to revise accreditation standards, some board members also expressed frustration with quotas as a means of enforcing quality in a state with many diverse school districts — and a largely rural school population.

Board member Jane Lee Hamman said going forward, board members need to take a more strategic look at needs across Montana. Specifically, she said rules and requirements should support, not oppress, small rural schools.

“I’ve found this to be the most frustrating part of what we’ve done in the last two years and I’m still not done with it,” Hamman said. “I want to see flexibility so school administrators can make adjustments where needed depending on their community and their students and the talents they have available to provide the best opportunities for all students.

“And at the same time, I think we need some guard rails, some guidelines, ratios … that provide the basic minimums.”

This year, the Office of Public Instruction updates school accreditation standards, and the proposal to eliminate minimum quotas for some positions met with significant opposition across Montana.

For example, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, a coalition of educational organizations, and 1,273 commenters were among those calling for the board’s package to keep student-teacher ratios intact.

In public comment over the past few months, many people have pointed to the mental health crisis in particular as a reason to maintain the minimum ratio of one counselor to 400 students, or even nudge to offer more counseling in public schools.

In a letter, longtime educators Sheila and Hal Stearns called on the board to restore and, if anything, raise the standards for counselors and librarians for the benefit of all parents city and country. Sheila Stearns is the former Commissioner for Higher Education.

“As lifelong educators, we know that the need for qualified counselors and information specialists in schools has always been, now more than ever,” the Stearns wrote.

In March, the Board of Public Education will take formal action on a number of proposed accreditation standards revisions.

Last week, board members responded to public comments, including an onslaught of calls to keep minimum quotas — at the very least. They voted to agree with comments calling for the retention of the current student-teacher ratios for superintendents, principals, librarians and advisers.

They shared their rationale for wanting to maintain a minimum standard, although they noted that the current approach doesn’t work well across Montana.

After the meeting, Executive Director of the Board of Public Education McCall Flynn said the difficulty for the board is that ratios do not necessarily equate to quality, but the board has to choose between extremes and has heard little data to back up the proposed changes to support.

“It’s really difficult to go from having these pretty strict, strong guardrails that have been in place for quite some time to basically removing all of that,” Flynn said.

At the meeting, board member Tammy Lacey said school districts would not immediately fire superintendents, librarians and counselors if the board scraps the current standards.

However, she said the cuts would be made out of necessity over time. For example, when she was superintendent at Great Falls and had to cut $1.8 million from the budget, the district cut strategically.

“We’ve trimmed the programs we didn’t have to in order to maintain accreditation,” Lacey said.

If superintendents and advisers aren’t needed, she says, they’ll end up on the chopping block as budgets get tight, too. At the same time, she said that relationships are not a silver bullet.

“This requires further discussion and further study,” Lacey said.

When the board is considering standards, Montana’s rural context should be a priority, argued OPI’s Julie Murgel. For example, she said more than half of state schools have fewer than 100 students and only 6 percent have more than 500 students.

“No state has a higher percentage of rural schools or small school districts in this country,” said Murgel, OPI’s chief operations officer for innovation, improvement and excellence.

She said schools could request a derogation from the ratio, but it was just another step the smaller schools would have to take to comply with the rules.

At the meeting, Bozeman Superintendent Casey Bertram said he was concerned it would be a dangerous and slippery slope for public education if accreditation standards for staffing levels softened.

“My concern is that there will be a legislative response and that these staff cuts will reduce funding for public education going forward and long term,” Bertram said.

Keila Szpaller is Associate Editor of the Daily Montanan, a non-profit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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