Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Academic counselor Rebecca Turco, right, talks with a Brighton High student. A state board proposal could require the hiring of more counselors.

School district superintendents are angry over a potentially expensive State Board of Education proposal that requires one counselor for every 350 secondary students.

Currently the ratio in some schools is as high as one counselor per 600 students. The state average is one counselor for every 395 students, according to the Utah State Office of Education.

The proposed rule, to be discussed by the board today, also states school counselors shouldn't do clerical work such as administering tests or changing class schedules.

If districts don't comply with the new rule, they would lose state funding.

The superintendents unanimously passed a resolution this week decrying the board's proposal.

While superintendents agree hiring more school counselors is a great idea, the concern is how to pay for them all.

Superintendents say this is clearly an "unfunded mandate." They contend the requirement would cause financial hardship on districts, resulting in larger class sizes, slashed school programs — or even tax increases.

"We're already carrying a heavy load. To jeopardize our minimum school funds is not just wrong — it's insane," Courtney Syme, North Sanpete School District superintendent said during a heated Utah School Superintendents Association meeting this week.

USOE officials say they plan to ask the Legislature for $8 million in new funding to hire counselors in junior high and high schools.

Last year USOE asked the Legislature for $9 million in new funding for school counselors and received only $1 million. The previous year, it requested $4 million and received $1 million.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, who serves on the Legislature's public education appropriations committee, supports the board's proposal. She said she believes the Legislature should put the funding request "as a priority."

National counseling associations actually recommend one counselor per 250 students, according to USOE. In order to reach the state school board's proposed 1-to-350 ratio, about 75 counselors would need to be hired statewide.

Utah school counselors, who are required to have master's degrees, earn on average $60,455 a year, including benefits.

Jordan School District Superintendent Barry Newbold says it would cost his district more than a million dollars to hire 27 counselors to comply with the rule.

"I would hope people in positions of responsibility and trust will listen and weigh carefully the impact of such a decision," he said.

Steve Peterson, director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, e-mailed a reminder to superintendents Thursday asking them to contact their board members and tell them to vote against the proposal.

No one can predict what the board will do or say.

"Egads," said board member Thomas Gregory of Provo. "I'm sure it will be lively."

Board member Dixie Allen, of Vernal, says board members may take the superintendents' frustrations into consideration but "the overriding issue has to be the best interest of students."

The proposal is slated for a second reading today. A final vote will be taken after a third reading scheduled for October.

The proposed new rule also states school counselors should not do non-counseling clerical work. This could mean the district would have to hire additional office assistants.

"Let's have the counselors do what they are supposed to do," Jones agreed.

Duties outside counseling keep the average counselor from directly interacting with students for 36 days per school year, according to USOE.

"They are so burdened down they can't do the work they want and need to do," said Dawn Kay-Stevenson, USOE coordinator for student services and comprehensive guidance, career and technical education.

Rebecca Turco, a counselor at Brighton High School, decided to become a counselor after the Columbine High School shooting. But she says she isn't doing as much personal counseling as she had expected.

"I do a ton of schedule changes the first four weeks of school," Turco said.

She estimates her test proctoring takes a month of her work during the school year and there is "less and less" time to meet with students and help them with college information.

"We're pretty overwhelmed," Turco said.

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