Brittney Lofthouse — Staff Writer

National surveys have showed that the majority of parents believe that the best approach to preventing violence in schools is through improving mental health services and emergency response training for school staff. 

The Macon County School System is looking at a nearly $300,000 annual budget increase to hire more counselors and administrators to address mental health concerns within the district. 

The number of school counselors serving the nation’s K-12 students has increased slightly over the last few years, but the student-to-school-counselor ratio remains well above the ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA), according to the most recent data available. The national student-to-school-counselor ratio was 482-to-1 in 2014-15, compared with 491-to-1 the previous year. Although the national average has decreased, it’s still nearly twice ASCA’s recommended ratio of 250 students per school counselor. North Carolina averages 378 students for every school counselor and statewide employees around 4,100 school counselors for the state’s 1,548,900 students. 

For Macon County Schools, there are three full-time and two part-time school psychologists responsible for the districts entire 4,500 student population. There are two social workers assigned in the schools, one per 2,250 students. Macon County Schools employees 10 full-time and one part-time school counselor(s).  One counselor is provided for each school.  FHS and South Macon Elementary have one counselor per 450-500 students.  MMS and MVI have one counselor per 600 students.

“We have seen our number of students who have mental health issues double over the past three years,” said Macon Middle School Principal Scot Maslin. “We have at least two students per week who are cutting, have a suicidal ideation, or have communicated a threat to harm themselves or others.  We also have had a large number of students who have been sexually assaulted and need continued guidance.   With two administrators and one counselor to manage 600 students, I feel we are not able to do a lot of our normal duties.” 

Macon Middle School is one of four schools in Macon County looking for additional staff to address mental health issues within their schools. Franklin High School has requested two additional guidance counselors and an additional assistant principal. Union Academy requested a guidance counselor. Currently, the school doesn’t have one at all. 

“Although some of my students are with a mental health provider, I have seen that number decrease this year,” said Union Academy Principal Diane Cotton. “Anticipating the reforms in Medicaid and lack of insurance coverage, I anticipate even fewer having access to Meridian or a similar mental health provider.” 

Dr. Baldwin explained that Macon County Schools currently contracts with Meridian Behavioral Health. Although the board approves the contract annually, board member Stephanie McCall asked at last week’s budget work session what Meridian was and what services they provide. 

Meridian has been providing a full array of child and adult mental health and substance abuse services in the westernmost counties of North Carolina since 2003 when the organization was formally established as a private, nonprofit “spin-off’ of the newly formed Local Management Entity, Smoky Mountain Center (SMC). Under the district’s contract with Meridian, therapists are available when students who qualify with insurance such as Medicaid are referred, but according to Maslin, even Meridian is overloaded within the district and there is a waitlist of five to six students just to be seen. 

“What is Medicaid based on?” asked McCall. “Is it income based?” 

Dr. Baldwin explained that yes, students who qualify for Medicaid can receive Meridian services for free, but other students, who might need services but are not Medicaid eligible, don’t qualify for the program. 

The district’s intention to request the seven new positions will mean around $300,000 needed in the local operational budget. With no state or federal funds to address the personnel request, Macon County Schools will be asking the Macon County Board of Commissioners to fund the positions. Currently, the county provides the school system with more than $7 million a year for operating expenses and an increase would put the total request closer to $8 million. The school system also plans to ask the county for additional capital outlay funds this year to address the physical security of schools. After a review from Mike Anderson, who works for the NC Center for Safer Schools, the district has identified potential security threats that would need additional funding from the county in order to accomplish. 

The county is in the beginning stages of the budget planning process and will have to make a budget decision before July 1, when a new budget is scheduled to begin.