BESE drops plan to change rules for counselors and librarians

Prodded by passionate criticism, Louisiana’s top school board Tuesday dropped proposed new rules that public school counselors and librarians said would diminish their roles and hurt students.

The turnaround is highly unusual.

Both state Superintendent of Education John White, who initially pushed the changes, and Chas Roemer, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a key backer of the overhaul, later endorsed the reversal.

Under the planned guidelines, which BESE approved earlier this year, public schools could get around staffing requirements for counselors and librarians if they found other approved ways to do so.

But the change sparked outrage among both groups.

Hundreds of critics filed written comments on the plans, which forced BESE to take another look at the policy.

White, Roemer and others had hoped that tweaks to the planned changes would pave the way for final approval.

But instead, counselors and librarians took turns criticizing the new rules, usually to rousing cheers from colleagues in a state auditorium.

Current rules, which will remain in effect, require one high school counselor for every 450 students.

The proposed changes would have allowed schools to get around that mandate if they were “capable of providing academic guidance, postsecondary counseling and personal developmental support through alternate means.”

In addition, staffing ratios for librarians would be waived for “schools capable of providing resources and assistance to students through an alternate structure.”

But counselors said only they have the needed credentials, experience and one-on-one relationships with students.

They also said that turning over the job to even well-meaning noncounselors would be dangerous.

“No one can replace the school counselor,” said Cathy Smith, recent president of the Louisiana School Counselors Association and a counselor herself at Jennings High School.

Counselors are supposed to assist students on course selections, graduation requirements, career and college options, test interpretations and personal problems.

Jennifer Curry, president-elect of the Louisiana School Counselors Association, said just a single area where counselors are responsible includes parental workshops, curriculum, graduation plans and homework skills, among other duties.

Curry said schools cannot simply employ “alternative people” to do the work.

Walter Lee, a BESE member who lives in Mansfield, sparked the push to leave rules governing counselors and librarians the way they were before BESE approved the changes earlier this year.

Before the revamp, Lee said, panel members were not hearing complaints from either group.

“Now we are hearing lots of concerns,” he said.

Roemer and White initially sought to win approval for the new rules, including a second round of changes aimed at addressing concerns in both groups.

Backers said the overhaul is part of a major effort to trim state regulations and give local school districts more autonomy.

“We are trying to be less prescriptive to districts,” Roemer said. “They know their schools better. They know their resources better.”

White said he and others worked long hours with representatives of counselor and librarian groups to strike a compromise.

“I am urging you to support the compromise,” he said.

However, White, Roemer and Lee could be seen conferring while numerous counselors and librarians took turns criticizing the plan.

Shortly afterward, a motion to leave the regulations unchanged won approval without dissent.