Counselor position restored at Malibu High

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The board also restored two full-time equivalent counseling positions and created a new one in Santa Monica schools. These actions will cost the district nearly $400,000 to cover salaries and benefits.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

The Board of Education last week reversed one its most controversial budget cuts when it restored a counseling position at Malibu High School. At the recommendation of district staff, the board last month eliminated two counseling jobs from the school. But after hearing criticism from community members that this created an unmanageable counselor/student ratio, several board members said at recent meetings that had they thought it through, they would only have eliminated one counseling position.

Many in Malibu hoped the restoration of one position would allow for the return of popular college counselor Ah Young Chi, who was one of the two laid-off counselors (layoffs are determined by seniority). But this is unlikely to happen because she has accepted a job elsewhere. Malibu High principal Mark Kelly said in an interview this week he has not given up hope that she may return to Malibu High now that her position has been restored.

The board also restored two full-time equivalent counseling positions in Santa Monica schools to bring down the student/counselor ratio. These restorations will cost the district $280,000 to $300,000 to cover salaries and benefits, Superintendent Tim Cuneo said.

When the board eliminated the two counselor positions at Malibu High, the school was left with two people to cover the high school and to cover the middle school. One of the high school counselors would be assigned to college counseling duties. But the fear was with one person dedicated to 700 high schools students for regular counseling, this would be overwhelming and force the college counselor to assist. This would reduce the effectiveness of the college counseling program.

With the restored position, two people will be able to attend to the high school students for regular counseling while one person focuses on college counseling. The fourth counselor will remain dedicated to middle school students.

Malibu High School PTA President Wendy Sidley said after the meeting she is pleased the counselor/student ratio will return to a manageable level, but she wishes the cut had never been made in the first place since it means Chi is gone.

“The person who will come in is not familiar with the school, and we’ll have to start from scratch,” Sidley said.

Also at the meeting, a divided board voted to create an additional college counseling position at Santa Monica High School against the advice of Cuneo. This will cost an additional $80,000 to $100,000. The board asked for staff to give ideas about how this could be funded at the next meeting on Aug. 18. It could come from the shrinking general fund or possibly through money garnered from the Save Our Schools campaign.

The addition of a new college counseling position for Santa Monica High was an unusual move because the district has been cutting expenditures during this period of reduced revenue from the state. While the other counselor moves made at the meeting were for position restoration, this was creating a new job that had not previously existed.

Board member Ralph Mechur said this was necessary because Santa Monica High’s current status of 3,000 students and two college counselors was too high of a college counselor/student ratio, and he compared it to the one at Malibu High. Board member Jose Escarce, who voted against the proposal along with Board President Barry Snell, said this was a misleading statistic because only seniors use the service, and of those only 60 percent at Santa Monica High see the college counselors. So the ratio is actually smaller by this calculation, although still higher than the one at Malibu High.

Escarce also noted this would be adding cost to a college counseling program that had been operating with two counselors for several years. Although he said he sympathized with the idea that this ratio should be reduced, he did not believe this is an appropriate period to be adding a position to the counseling roster that had never previously existed. This did not persuade Mechur.

“Just because we have been doing something that has been inefficient and substandard doesn’t mean we should continue to do that,” he said.

Cuneo spoke against Mechur’s recommendation because Santa Monica High had not even been asked whether this was needed. He said it was also not a good idea to be making this decision when, in his opinion, the board did not have enough data and information on the current counseling services and whether such a change was necessary.

Snell said he sympathized with Mechur, but could not vote for the proposal.

“Although I understand your thought process on it, I just can’t support putting in a counselor that we didn’t have previously,” he said. “And that’s not to say there isn’t a need, but there is a need in a lot of different areas.”

The final tally was Mechur, Maria Leon-Vazquez, Oscar de la Torre and Kelly Pye in favor, Escarce and Snell opposed and Ben Allen abstaining.