Student access to mental health support is expected to increase in Roanoke County Public Schools.

The Roanoke County School Board voted 5-0 Thursday to hire five new licensed counselors to serve the secondary schools, and two additional counseling staff members at the elementary level. Hiring the new positions means all middle and high schools will have a full-time mental health counselor, and that a full-time counselor is present in all elementary schools.

The combined annual cost of the new positions is $426,448, according to the school division.

Shawn Hughes, associate director of school counseling for Roanoke County, presented the request to the school board, along with Assistant Superintendent Jessica McClung.

The proposal was largely fueled by recommendations made by the school division’s safety advisory committee, Hughes said. The 30-member committee comprises school administrators, teachers and parents, and said increasing student access to mental health professionals should be a top priority.

The job title for the new middle and high school positions will be called Leading Individuals and Fostering Empowerment counselor, Hughes said. In addition to new hires, the division plans to broaden its student assistance program from substance abuse to mental health.

The goal is to provide more support for social, emotional and mental health needs, Hughes said. Improvements to student wellness, attendance and behavior are the expected outcomes.

Amid a national discussion on school security, and the mental health of teenagers, some parents and employees in Roanoke County have raised concern about the availability of counselors as they rotate between schools.

Workloads for school counselors have increased across Virginia since the recession a decade ago as schools employ fewer support staff workers — including nurses, psychologists and social workers — according to a recent study by The Commonwealth Institute and Legal Aid Justice Center.

The study reveals student enrollment increased by 57,590 students between the fiscal years of 2008 and 2017, while support staff decreased by 2,356 in the same time period.

The average caseload for school counselors was 385 students per counselor as of the 2015-2016 fiscal year, according to the study.

This week, a Virginia House of Delegates panel on school safety heard recommendations on steps schools could take to improve security. Proposals included hiring more counselors to alleviate heavy caseloads of the mental health professionals.

Funding the new counselor positions in Roanoke County is expected to be a long-term investment by school officials. For this fiscal year, the school board will likely tap into state funding it had placed into its reserves after the General Assembly gave the county about $572,000 more than it anticipated.

School board Vice Chairman Don Butzer said he thought Thursday’s meeting made for a “good night to be a school board member.” Committing more than $426,000 to new counselor positions is a proactive measure to addressing school safety, he said.

McClung said the school division will wait to ensure it can hire the best candidates, but hopes to fill the positions this school year.

Support for proposal

The school board unanimously passed a resolution Thursday in support of a proposal by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, to use internet sales tax revenue to modernize the state’s schools. Stanley cited a Supreme Court ruling allowing states to collect more sales tax from internet retailers.

Committee dissolved

The school board also voted 5-0 to disband the division’s construction committee.

The committee had met publicly once per month to discuss minor and major capital projects. All school board members attended the meetings with staff and administrators.

The request to dissolve came from Superintendent Ken Nicely and facilities director George Assaid.

School Board Chairman Jason Moretz said the board’s decision was based on a desire to improve dialogue on issues by alleviating pressure from staff on voting on action items, since the school board ultimately makes final decisions on spending.

Moretz said discussions on construction projects will now take place during school board work sessions.

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