MONROE – Andrew Houlihan thanked county leaders for supporting Union County Public Schools’ efforts in social and emotional learning, but the superintendent stressed the need for adding more high school counselors.
Houlihan broke down his 2019-20 budget request county commissioners and school board members in a joint meeting April 29 into three parts:
• Investing in our Future: Addressing operational supplies and contracted services, as well as state maintenance licensing incentive ($457,231).
• Investing in Employees: Accommodates state-mandated salary and benefits increases, as well as market increases for teacher assistants based on the UCPS compensation study ($2.2 million).
• Investing in Students: Adds nine high school counselor positions, one lead middle school counselor position and one counselor liaison to help students dual-enrolled at UCPS and South Piedmont Community College. ($818,000)
UCPS has a 1:397 counselor-to-student ratio, compared to the state average of 1:378 and national model of 1:250 recommended by the American School Counselor Association. Adding nine would lower the ratio to 1:273.
“Our school counselors, because they are so spread thin, they are actually doing more academic advising,” Houlihan said, citing feedback from high school students and parents. “They’re not really having the time or ability to actually do counseling.”
Thanks to a partnership with Union County, UCPS has had access to a social worker and mental health therapist in all clusters, as well as a full-time lead social worker and full-time social and emotional learning coordinator.
More than 200 people have also been trained in suicide intervention training.
The county has added 10 social workers, a supervisor, program manager and five behavioral health therapists this year, according to Assistant County Manager Michelle Lancaster. She anticipates next year’s budget will include 10 behavioral health therapists, one behavioral supervisor and five social workers.
“I think we all agree that there have been some significant improvements made over the last year,” County Manager Mark Watson said. “We want to continue that. We want to convey our staff’s commitment to that program going forward.”
Most of the feedback from commissioners came in the form of questions.
Commissioner Dennis Rape asked if the work of counselors could be moved to another administrator within the school.
“Perhaps,” Houlihan replied. “The biggest issue we’re trying to get to is making sure when kids are in crisis or have an issue that there is someone in that building they can go to immediately.”
While there was no friction between UCPS and Union County, there was some internal bickering among school board members regarding a document Houlihan briefly introduced to commissioners to show they’re planning beyond next year.
Candice Sturdivant, who represents Monroe, Wingate and Marshville on the school board, kept asking questions about the long-range planning document, while board chairs Melissa Merrell and Kathy Heintel tried to steer the discussion back to the fiscal year budget. They assured Sturdivant that long-range plans are adjusted after each fiscal year by the board. They encouraged Sturdivant to meet with district staff or attend a school board committee meeting to get her questions answered.
At one point, Sturdivant said Wingate Elementary was not in good shape, but the school wouldn’t see improvements in the 2019-20 budget. Sturdivant also wanted to know where students and teachers go when buildings are getting renovated.
“Again, I understand this is just a draft, just a discussion and just a conversation,” she said. “If we were not going to talk about this today, this should not have been put in front of us.”
Merrell said the information was requested by the county.