- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Rick Wheeler has spent nearly three decades trying to soothe the middle-school blues for his students. A ball of energy, he sprints around the halls of Hastings Middle School to fill out bullying reports and check in with students in between being a full-time counselor for almost 500 kids.

But even Wheeler, the 2013 Minnesota middle school counselor of the year and an avid marathoner, doesn’t have the time, energy or resources to help all the hundreds of students he oversees each year - and he’s not alone.

For decades, the ratio of students to counselors in Minnesota has ranked near the very bottom nationwide. Across the state, there’s an average of nearly 800 students for each counselor.

Now, some lawmakers say Minnesota has been in last long enough. They’re trying to get money for more counselors and support staff - but it’s going to take some serious political will to make any headway this year while more pressing legislative issues loom large.

“We do so many things well and this one we’re clearly dropping the ball on,” said Sen. Susan Kent, a Woodbury Democrat sponsoring the proposal again this year.



Kent last year pushed for $90 million for school counselors. She scaled that back this year to $20 million in one-time spending due to a reduced budget surplus and the fact it’s not a budget year.

Her proposal would allow schools to enter into a six-year grant program and hire a counselor or more support staff, like chemical dependency counselors or social workers. The state would split an employee’s salary with a local district evenly for the first four years and cover 25 percent for the remaining two. Kent’s hope is that after six years of the new positions, districts will realize they need to permanently fill that job.

Counselors say the additional help is needed so they can actually connect with students and spot issues before they start. The bill includes all support staff, Kent said, since schools may have enough counselors but not have any psychologists or social workers.

At White Bear Lake High School, administrators recently shifted some funding to hire two more counselors in order to restructure its counseling divisions. Now, they have about eight counselors for four grade levels at a ratio of 275 students per counselor. Each counselor is assigned half of a grade level and sticks with that class through their four years in high school.

“A lot of these other things get moved to the back burner (with too many students) - college and career counseling, minor issues,” said Brian Merhar, a counselor at White Bear Lake who used to be responsible for over 400 students each year. “You’re putting out a lot of fires, that’s how you’re prioritizing your job.”

Merhar said now he has more time to connect with students and build relationships instead of just handling emergencies.

But many lawmakers question why the state needs to dedicate even more money to help school counseling when the Legislature already moved to add millions more in general education spending last year.

Republican Rep. Jenifer Loon, who chairs the education finance committee, said she could understand the push for extra funding if it wasn’t keeping up with inflation, but she said it is. And if schools want to shift money around to hire more counselors - like White Bear Lake did - then they should, she said.

Nationwide, Minnesota has ranked last or almost last for years when it comes to its ratio of counselors to students. In the 2013-2014 school year, Minnesota had a ratio of 743 students to every one counselor, third only to Arizona and California, according to the American School Counselors Association.

Kent, the Democrat pushing the legislation, said many states have mandates requiring low ratios. At the AMSA, Assistant Director Jill Scott said other state governments recommend schools keep low ratios when allocating funds.

In Wheeler’s office in Hastings one recent Friday morning, the longtime school counselor sat down with two of his colleagues before meeting with one of his regular students. One of the counselors, Charlie Black, said people in his profession often aren’t good about promoting their own work, especially since they can’t talk about their sessions with students with anyone else.

Black said counselors need to speak up and let people know that their work is important and that they need help.

“We’re really good advocates for kids, but we’re not the best self-advocates,” he said. “But we’re important, we need to advocate for ourselves.”

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