School board, commissioners talk social work, poverty

Mar. 17, 2014 @ 04:58 PM

There are about 30 social workers assigned to serve the more than 33,000 students who attend Durham Public Schools.
Some school board members don’t think that number is adequate for a school district that has many children who suffer from the ill effects of poverty.
For some of those students, a meal beyond the school breakfast and lunch is not a guarantee, and too many have become desensitized to the violence and lawlessness that permeate their communities.
Teaching students who suffer in such conditions can prove tough.
“Everyone knows there is a very robust connection between poverty and stress and trauma in the home and violence in the neighborhood and mental health concerns,” said school board Chairwoman Heidi Carter. “We’re just trying to figure out how to solve it. We need poverty busters, something to break the link.”
The discussion about school social workers came Monday during a quarterly meeting between the school board and Board of County Commissioners.
The two elected bodies discussed a wide-range of subjects including efforts to reduce poverty, access to mental health care and homeless services for students, among others.
The No Child Left Behind legislation recommended a ratio of one school social worker with a master’s degree-to-800-students while the School of Social Work Association of America recommends one masters-degreed social worker for every 400 students.
DPS has roughly one social worker for every 1,300 students.
“You have some schools with 700 and 800 kids,” school board Vice Chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown said in an interview. “You need more than one person to handle that load.”
Forte-Brown added that several schools have large numbers of students who are classified as homeless and are in particular need of additional help from social workers.
Still, Forte-Brown was quick to point out that the commissioners have been very generous when it comes to funding the school district.
“I’m not complaining about the resources we get from them, but we still have children with needs,” Forte-Brown said.  
Carter said the school board often hears from teachers and others in the school who tell the board about the strain social workers labor under while trying to adequately serve students.
But she said the school district does not plan to ask for funding for additional social workers when it delivers its budget proposal to county commissioners in a few months.
She said the school district will try to better address the shortage of social workers by using existing resources.
“We might want my social workers but one of our guiding principles is to absorb any additional cost this year with money we already have,” Carter said.
School officials have said they don’t expect any additional money from commissioners above the $113 million it received for this fiscal year.
The board is reluctant to ask commissioners for more money because the school district is currently flush with about $19.7 million in its unassigned fund balance.  
The large sum of money in the fund balance came as a surprise to the school board members who lobbied the commissioners last year for additional money to balance its budget.
The discovery of the money embarrassed board members and ultimately caused former Superintendent Eric Becoats to resign.