Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Budget Cuts Are Back. Here’s What to Do.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A new threat is building on the counseling horizon, and you’re going to need to get ready for it. The good news is that this is not a new nemesis; we’ve seen it before, we know what it does, and we’ve battled it before. The bad news is, it’s back and bigger than ever.

Yup. Budget cuts.

Congress is working hard to support states and schools with supplemental grants designed to take the sting out of all of the changes they’ve had to face during the quarantine. Unfortunately, many of these funds are earmarked specifically for tasks like distance learning, and the remaining money isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost states have to deal with when there’s an increased need for social services (when people lose their jobs) and a loss of revenue during a depression (due to stores and restaurants closing.)

The results can leave you breathless. The chair of a key budget committee in Michigan has said the state’s per-pupil budget allocation will need to slashed by 25 percent to balance the state budget. That isn’t the entire education budget, but it’s a big enough chunk that it isn’t hard to see where this is going. Budget cuts to schools, at a time when social distancing practices are already calling for smaller class sizes. That means you can’t lay off classroom teachers—so where do you cut?

Right.

Most states are in the early stages of budget discussions, but the size of the proposed cuts should be more than enough to make any school counselor nervous. When 80 percent of a budget is personnel costs, and most of those personnel are classroom teachers you have to keep on in order to make for smaller class sizes, that puts decision makers under some pretty big pressure to lay off non-classroom personnel. And that’s us.
This isn’t exactly the news counselors need to hear, especially since we’re in the middle of moving heaven and earth to support students through all kinds of challenges, with the added challenge that we can’t be in the same room with them while we try to support them.

On the other hand, it’s not like budget cuts are new turf we have to cover. Counselors are one of the groups that regularly survive fiscal scrutiny, and the strategies we’ve used in the past will help us here, too:

Use the data and the power of public opinion The quarantine has featured more than its share of stories about the challenges students and families are facing getting used to online school and life in general, and most of those stories talk about how invaluable counselors are in supporting this transition. You’re going to want to collect these stories, and add your own local examples of how your services have made a difference. Online learning is a delicate system; if getting rid of counselors is going to knock it down, they won’t do that.

Don’t rest on your laurels The programming, seminars, and support systems you’ve set up in the last two months have more than met the needs of many of your students, but “more of the same” isn’t likely to keep your job if money is tight. Experience tells us that counseling jobs are saved when we can show how we’re going to do more with less—so it’s time to put together a plan that would expand existing counseling services, especially now that you have the summer to develop them. Administrators know you already make a difference; now is the time to show them you can make even more of a difference, since that makes investing scarce budget dollars in you all the better of an investment. This isn’t exactly fair, but it’s often the difference between keeping a counselor and a program, and being one counselor who puts out fires at four different schools.

Choose your partners Counselors are often seen as easy layoff targets because the belief is we are independent agents—that the work of others doesn’t depend on our work. Any work you’ve done with classroom teachers or community mental health programs is proof your work affects more than just one student at a time. If you’ve got classroom colleagues and community partners who value what you do, now is the time to ask them to speak up.

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