BESE panel votes to revamp role of school counselors

A committee of Louisiana’s top school board approved a plan Tuesday that critics said would diminish the role of counselors in public high schools.

The vote was 7-2 and followed nearly two hours of often-heated comments.

Under current rules, high schools are supposed to have one counselor for every 450 students.

The proposal that won panel approval would keep that requirement.

However, it would allow local school districts to get around the staffing ratio if they opt to use vendors or others to provide counseling services.

Backers called the change a compromise between state Superintendent John White’s original proposal, which would have eliminated the staffing requirement, and counselors who said that they provide vital services that laymen are not qualified to offer.

The redefined role of counselors was part of a sweeping plan by White, which he said would give school districts more flexibility to set school academic calendars, award credits and other issues.

White told the committee that the overhaul represented a bid to trim the role of the state on a wide array of mandates and give local educators more authority.

“I ask you to consider adopting a new role for the state,” White said.

But some members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education argued that White’s plan represented a massive change that needed more time to review.

Jim Garvey, a Metairie lawyer and a frequent White ally, said the proposal meant that the state was “throwing out a big number of changes” and that more information was needed on how services would be replaced.

A bid by BESE members Lottie Beebe, of Breaux Bridge, and Carolyn Hill, of Baton Rouge, to shelve White’s plan failed 3-7.

Numerous counselors told the committee that the current staffing rules need to be kept intact because students rely on them for dealing with academic issues and personal problems.

“I beg you, I plead with you, please don’t take a step backwards,” said Mary Ballard, a counselor.

Cathy Smith, president of the Louisiana School Counselors Association and a counselor in Jennings, said eliminating the ratio requirement would pave the way for school districts to eliminate counselors.

“Please don’t fail Louisiana students now,” Smith told the Academic Goals and Instructional Improvement Committee.

High school counselors are supposed to assist students on course selections, make sure they are on schedule to graduate and assist in college and career options.

In some districts they interpret tests, grapple with student disciplinary problems and oversee student records.

Louisiana has about 2,300 counselors, according to the state Department of Education.

After the vote counselors who attended the meeting said they were generally disappointed by the outcome.

They said that, while retaining the current ratio was a small victory, allowing non-counselors to handle duties previously done solely by counselors was a clear setback.

The rules governing counselors, librarians, academic guidelines and other issues are included in what educators call Bulletin 741.

“Bulletin 741 drives me crazy,” said Chas Roemer, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge and who is set to become BESE president on Wednesday.

“We ought to get rid of the whole thing,” Roemer said.

Even with White’s plan, he said, no one was suggesting any wholesale dismissal of high school counselors.

The full BESE board is expected to approve the changes during its meeting at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.