City to consider funding of all school counselors | District could use extra $180k for other programs

For nearly two decades, the school district and city have split the tab for providing counseling services at Island schools, but next month the City Council will consider picking up the entire bill for the 2008-2009 school year.

The district expects that it will have to cut around $800,000 from this year’s budget, and proponents for the city’s assistance say schools could use the extra money for more critical programming, priority educational needs and better support of the Island’s families and youth.

“These are services our city should provide to our children, and it’s time for the Council to step up and fully fund those services,” said Islander Terry Pottmeyer before the City Council in late July. “I ask that you [the Council] dig a little deeper into your pockets and fully fund the counseling program.”

According to Pottmeyer, she hopes the city will fully fund the counseling services this school year, while creating a stakeholders group to explore the possibilities of continuing the complete funding into the future.

For the past 18 years, the two government bodies have entered an agreement at the end of every summer, sharing the costs of the counselors with the city usually paying less than 60 percent. For the current school year, the total cost for the seven positions within the city’s Youth and Family Services Department is $434,632. If the Council decides to pay for the services in full, it would save the school district about $183,000. In July, the Council delayed its vote until Oct. 6 so that the city could look for potential funding sources. According to City Manager Rich Conrad, the city has the resources to pay the additional costs without cutting other services.

“I don’t believe we have to pit one service against another,” Conrad said. “I plan to present a budget that allows [the Council] to maintain the counselors and fund the budget I am going to recommend.”

Pottmeyer argued that funding school counselors benefits Island families and is as important as other basic service the city provides, such as police officers and firefighters.

“In a sense, it’s putting together public safety and human services, and they are both important,” she said. “We couldn’t have successful community without supporting those. Both of those have to be funded.”

According to Gayle Erickson, the clinical supervisor for Youth and Family Services, the high school counselors generally see students on a recurring basis to talk about their issues with friends, school, family, stress or depression.

There is one counselor at each of the Island’s three elementary schools and two secondary schools, which have an additional drug and alcohol counselor as well. Many of the programs help new students get acclimated with their surroundings — whether it is the transition from elementary to junior high or a new student who recently moved to the Island — as well as peer groups for students dealing with a divorce, a friend using drugs or experiencing depression from a tough breakup.

“A lot of their contact with kids is through drop-ins or is informal in the lunchroom or in the halls,” said Erickson. “They are pretty well known. Even if not accessed, students know about it. At the elementary level, the counselors probably know every kid at the school. They are out at recess, in the classroom, leading meetings, hosting lunch groups. They are the hub of the school.”

In addition to advising students, the counselors also train them to help others before contacting the adults. In the peer-helping program, called Natural Helpers, the counselor selects students who may talk to others in need of help. The students are trained in listening, how to help and when to make a referral when things are serious, Erickson said.

“Kids talk to kids, especially at the secondary level,” she said.

Hundreds of students take advantage of the counselors each year, according to YFS Director Cyndy Goodwin, and all meet the mentors at least once during classroom presentations.

“A lot of the kids come in because of their friends,” Goodwin said. “There are literally hundreds of consultations each year and hundreds of drop-ins.”

Goodwin said that the counseling programs were also viewed as very successful, both on the Island and in the region, as they have become a model among other school districts.

“When schools are asked what they need most, all of them say counselors,” Goodwin said.

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