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833 School Board member wants more financial support for student mental health resources

A plea by a District 833 school board member could lead to adding more money to next year's budget.

District finance director Aaron Bushberger said the law requires the district to set a budget at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, but adjustments can be added later before the levy is certified in September.

Board member Jim Gelbmann, at the June 3 workshop meeting, asked board members to support spending an additional $50 per student, or about $800,000, to address student mental health problems.

Gelbmann said two Woodbury High School student suicides in the past two months validates the need for more counselors at all grade levels, a concern he's raised several times in the past.

"It's a different world," he said, from when he and board members were in school.

There is more poverty and increased illegal drug use, more children being raised by single parents and an increase in kids diagnosed with autism, he said.

While some might argue that mental health is not a school problem, he said, it is when it affects student learning.

While he didn't persuade the board to agree to the specific amount of money, board members said they want more information and administration recommendations before making a decision.

Superintendent Mark Porter said input is needed from schools and solutions won't necessarily lead to adding new ongoing positions. Administrators will evaluate available outside services and evaluate the current roles of psychologists and counselors.

Mental health was consistently mentioned as a barrier to student learning, Porter said, when he visited schools last fall.

"This area will be a challenge in the future," he said, in part due to dwindling county resources.

Gelbmann said he talked to principals Efe Agbamu at Park High School and Linda Plante at Woodbury High School. He also met with East Ridge High School Principal Aaron Harper.

He was told that counselors' roles have evolved into spending most of their time helping juniors and seniors plan for college.

Students with personal problems wait for days to meet with a counselor, he said.

Gelbmann said a best friend's suicide in his son's senior year at Woodbury High School negatively affected his family for two years.

If a mental health initiative is approved, the money would come from the more than $19 million in projected unallocated money, he said.

The district's policy is to have from 5 to 9 percent of the budget set aside to cover unexpected expenses and state funding lapses.

Board members, during this year's budget discussions, said they need unallocated money to offset future budget increases and flat state funding or cuts.

Past projections of "doom and gloom" have not come true, Gelbmann said.

Board chair Leslee Boyd said she didn't want the public to think the suicides could have been prevented if the district had "done something differently."

Gelbmann said he didn't mean to imply that.

Board member Marsha Adou is not inclined to add a specific amount of money to the budget before knowing how it would be spent and getting principals' recommendations. "I'm concerned about future deficits," she said.

Porter said, when compared to other districts, that District 833 has a low number of counselors. At Lake Middle School, there are three counselors for 1,400 students.

Given the current tragedies, it puts board members in a bad position if they're opposed to increasing the budget, said board member Ron Kath.

If they are opposed, it looks as if they are not concerned, he said.

While applauding Gelbmann for his concern, Kath said he needs facts to support the proposal to avoid an emotional response.

The roles of counselors needs to be clearly defined, Boyd said, in terms of what the board wants to accomplish. "This is a very large area," she said.

Board member David Kemper said problems are more urgent in middle and high schools.

Board member Tracy Brunnette said there is also a need in elementary schools.

"I like both ideas," Gelbmann said.

The board will discuss administration proposals at the Aug. 5 workshop with a vote set at the Aug. 19 regular meeting if necessary.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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