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CMS needs hundreds of social workers to meet national standards. Can county afford them?

Charlotte Observer - 1/25/2020

Jan. 25--After securing nearly $5.6 million in county funding, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hired 25 new social workers for the 2019-2020 academic year -- and the district is looking to hire 30 additional mental-health professionals, including counselors and psychologists.

But once those positions are filled, CMS will still lack hundreds of staff members who are needed to adequately address social and emotional learning.

Staffing deficits at CMS call for recruiting 500 more social workers, as well as 150 counselors and 115 psychologists, according to an analysis provided to the Mecklenburg County commissioners ahead of their annual board retreat next week.

"It's tragic. We are failing on general mental health for teachers and students," Commissioner Pat Cotham said in an interview Friday. "We need to continue this as a priority -- and not just as a verbal priority, but as a fiscal priority."

Nationally recommended ratios suggest that there should be a single school psychologist designated for every 700 students. But that ratio is drastically skewed at CMS, with one school psychologist serving nearly 1,600 students, according to the county's retreat material.

There should also be one school social worker for every 250 students, according to the national recommendations. By comparison, a given social worker at CMS is tasked with serving about 1,600 students.

In recent years, the number of students screened for suicide risk at CMS has soared. The district had been on track to reach 3,000 students at risk in 2018, surging from the 2,100 students recorded in 2017.

CMS is expected to make its formal budget request to the county commissioners months after the retreat, during a May 7 public policy workshop.

Cotrane Penn, the CMS executive director of student wellness, couldn't say what funding the school district is seeking for fiscal year 2021, but she emphasized there's "still a long way to go, especially with social workers and psychologists."

"We have a lot of youth in our community who have not received the different types of counseling support and services they need," Penn said in an interview Friday. "When really, really good student services work is being done, you see an absence of problems or a decrease of problems: drop-outs, behavioral challenges, suicide attempts."

A 'profound need'

Mecklenburg County deemed mental health a budget priority for fiscal year 2020, funneling new investments totaling $6.8 million across mental health screenings, supportive housing, foster care and CMS.

As the county commissioners prepare for their two-day retreat to review key initiatives for the upcoming year, a renewed emphasis on mental health could likely dominate discussions -- alongside budget priorities incorporating parks and greenways, affordable housing, early childhood education and racial disparities.

Commissioner Susan Harden said there is a "profound need" to bolster mental health services at CMS.

"The research really bears out that the interventions we do with children are a good return on investment, indicating there will be fewer needs for interventions later on," Harden said in an interview Friday. "I think it's really critical that we provide access to those services."

Penn said it is important to view education, coupled with mental health services, as a public health issue -- one that has implications for chronic unemployment and community violence, among other other outcomes.

From CMS's perspective, Penn said, the national staffing recommendations function as long-term aspirations for Mecklenburg.

"The county commissioners have been very supportive of our work," she said. "I'm OK with us getting there over time -- I'm certainly not looking for us to get there in one, two or three years."

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