For Foothills Forum
Much of the attention on the FY20 school district budget proposed by Superintendent Shannon Grimsley has focused on a suggested 4 percent pay raise for teachers.
But there’s another notable new expense that’s been recommended, one that’s reflective of troubling trends faced by rural schools: Hiring a full time social worker for the school district.
The estimated cost: About $80,000, with $50,000 to $63,000 dedicated to the position’s salary, depending on the person’s experience, with the remainder covering health insurance and FISA benefits.
“I think it’s a missing piece we need in the county because of the limited access to resources here, paired with the mental health needs of our students,” said Grimsley.
But the proposed school district social worker is hardly a sure thing. Dr. Grimsley’s proposed budget, which includes both the 4 percent salary hike and social worker position, would result in a $131,342 increase from the county’s general fund. But the FY20 Rappahannock County budget prepared by County Administrator Garrey Curry — which would not require a tax increase for county residents — allocates only $56,342 in additional funding for the school district. That means there’s a $75,000 difference between Dr. Grimsley’s proposal and what Curry has suggested.
Curry noted that if the teachers were given a 3 percent raise — which is what he’s recommending for other county employees — the social worker position would fit within his budget. “It’s an important position,” he said. “And from my perspective I believe it is much more important than a 4 percent versus a 3 percent salary increase for school employees. That said, it is not a binary choice. All expenses within the school budget and county budget are competing for this same $75,000.”
In other words, he contended that the board of supervisors doesn’t necessarily have to either support a 4 percent pay hike or fund a social worker — which is how school board member Rachel Bynum recently characterized the choice facing the supervisors. Instead, Curry said, other expenses could be pared in the school district’s budget.
A public hearing on the county’s FY20 budget is scheduled for Monday, April 22 at 7 p.m. in the Rappahannock County Elementary School gym/auditorium.
Why a social worker?
For those who might question the need for a social worker, Dr. Grimsley said it would fill a role necessitated by a disturbing new reality for even small rural school districts.
“We’re seeing more issues extending from the increase of students living in poverty,” she said. “We see more issues of substance abuse, neglect, homelessness. Things that we haven’t really encountered too much before.”
The school district does have three counselors, but their focus is more in helping students succeed academically, and dealing with potentially complex social and mental health issues requires a different background and training, Dr. Grimsley said.
Carolyn Lamm agreed. As Supervisor of Student Support Services for Fauquier County Public Schools, she oversees that district’s 10 social workers. Fauquier has more than 11,000 students, compared to fewer than 900 in Rappahannock’s two schools.
School social workers, she said, not only need to be able to determine if there are deeper, complicated reasons for a suddenly struggling student or one having discipline problems, but also how to connect his or her family to services that can help them.
“Most of their work is more preventive,” Lamm explained. “Maybe a student has had seven absences in the past month, and they’re falling way behind. It’s the social worker’s job to reach out to the family and say, ‘We have concerns and we’d like to get together with you and talk about how to support him.’
“These are often problems that originate outside school, but they affect the chance of success in school,” she added. “It’s not just a matter of whether a student can get more reading support or math support. They’re looking at mental health support. They’re looking at depression. We’ve had children who have threatened or tried to take action in committing suicide, even in elementary school.”
Judging from recent student surveys, such threats are becoming more common. Earlier this year, Grimsley revealed that 17 percent of Rappahannock High School students said they had seriously considered suicide, a percentage that has risen the past three years. Lamm has seen the same thing in Fauquier — its most recent student survey showed that depression, self-harm and addiction all are on the rise. It doesn’t help, said Lamm, that in rural communities, mental health treatment for children and teens is in short supply.
“Often the search for mental health treatment starts at school because the parents don’t know where else to go,” she said. That’s where social workers can make a difference, whether it’s through connecting families to professional help or setting up small counseling groups, Lamm noted.
To Dr. Grimsley, being able to provide that kind of help to students when they need it can bring long-term benefits. “If we keep one child out of the system, that’s going to save a significant amount of money down the road.”
To find mental health and addiction treatment resources in Rappahannock and Fauquier, call the Mental Health Association of Fauquier County at (540)-341-8732.