HELENA — Montana is in the middle of a multi-year project to review and update the baseline standards for accredited schools in the state. After several months of discussion, a committee of education leaders reached consensus on almost all the proposed changes, but they remained unable to find an agreement on how to handle the rules for school counselors.

On Friday, the Negotiated Rulemaking Committee – set up by the Montana Office of Public Instruction – completed its last meeting, where members attempted to resolve the remaining disagreements on two rule updates, including the counselor issue.

Currently, Montana requires school districts to have one counselor for every 400 elementary students and high school students. Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen has recommended removing that ratio, saying local school districts needed more flexibility in addressing their students’ mental health needs.

“I believe the committee, as well as myself, believe that this is about serving students – it is not about staffing of adults,” Arntzen told MTN Friday. “This is putting the emphasis onto students and the student needs, in any kind of a framework in delivering quality education in Montana.”

During Friday’s meeting, members agreed on language saying schools must have counseling programs and that district superintendents must make recommendations on staffing them “based on the capacity of individual counselors.” They also laid out options for districts, including employing counselors, contracting with them or using a consortium, multidistrict agreement or other cooperative system. Finally, they said superintendents must consider their school populations and student needs and consider additional supports for counselors if necessary.

However, members couldn’t come to a unanimous agreement on whether to include a specific ratio of counselors to students. Those in favor of eliminating the ratio said having it didn’t guarantee good outcomes for students. They said most school districts are doing more than what’s required by the current ratio, and that school district administrators should be trusted to do what is best for their students and employees.

Those who supported keeping a ratio said it was important to give districts a clear guideline to follow, and that there should be a guarantee that counselors wouldn’t be asked to take on significantly more students.

“We find that there is a point of diminishing return when school counselors have too many students that they’re trying to serve,” said Dr. Renee’ Schoening, executive director of the Montana School Counselor Association, who sits on the committee. “School counselors do a lot of different things: They are delivering lessons on social-emotional learning, they are providing individual and group counseling, they are that change agent within a school system.”

Schoening said most of her members feel they already have trouble adequately serving as many students as they’re assigned.

“I think especially now with what’s happened with COVID and the rising mental health needs of our students, it’s even more essential that school counselors have the ability to serve those students well –and the only way they can do that is to have fewer of them,” she said.

Most of the public comment the committee received supported keeping a specific ratio – and possibly even lowering it.

The committee did reach consensus Friday on the other unresolved issue: school library standards. In that case, they approved removing a specific staffing ratio and replacing it with language on expectations for each district’s library media program. Previously, they had gotten agreement on 48 additional rule proposals.

The proposed changes will now go to the Montana Board of Public Education. Arntzen said she’ll forward the consensus recommendations exactly as the committee made them. On the counselor issue, she said she’ll advance the language the members could agree on.

“These 21 individuals brought forward a very good product, and I’m very pleased to add this to my recommendations, using their work moving it forward,” said Arntzen.

The board will consider the recommendations at a special meeting on August 15.