Recently Wednesday Journal reported on District 200’s $100 million reserve as well as the departure of OPRF High School’s substance abuse prevention counselor after 18 months. As a parent of students in District 97 schools, I wanted to address a concern that touches both of these subjects.

In almost all Chicago-area school districts, including River Forest District 90 and Oak Park District 97, school social workers are contractual, state-certified employees. In D200, these positions (outside of special education) are contracted through a local counseling agency and are referred to as “resource managers.” While there are advantages in such a partnership, the potential advantages may not outweigh the benefits of maintaining these positions with certified employees.

Resource managers, like their certified counterparts, team with OPRF staff to provide therapeutic interventions for students individually and in group settings who are facing any number of social-emotional challenges or crises, including mental illness, substance use, grief/loss, truancy, abuse and neglect, homelessness, and behavioral and academic concerns.

As we struggle to address our community’s adolescent substance use, reported to be higher than county, state and national norms, and as educational policy has shifted to mandate that schools provide more intervention and accommodations for all students, these non-special education, mental health positions have become more important over time not less.

District 200’s resource managers, including the position of Substance Abuse Prevention Counselor, are paid significantly less than certified staff at OPRF and less than their counterparts at similar schools. The starting salary at OPRF for a certified employee with a master’s degree is $58,220. The starting salary of the resource managers is less than $35,000, with relatively diminished benefits.

Over 10-15 years, this discrepancy becomes more pronounced. Staff working in somewhat similar roles could be making half to a third of their colleagues. As a result, resource managers are likely to feel devalued and less likely to stay in these positions long term. This turnover is a disservice to students and is expensive in terms of lost productivity and experience.

I in no way mean to imply that these contractual employees are any less educated, proficient, or conscientious in providing adolescent mental health services in and out of schools. I have the highest regard for the work done by the agency and its staff. (The low pay of mental health workers at all levels compared to their similarly educated counterparts is disheartening and could be the focus of its own opinion letter.) I also strongly believe that the board, administration, and staff at OPRF intend to provide the highest level of support to all our students.

My primary concern is that we are not adequately funding these particular positions to retain the most highly qualified, passionate, and invested professionals to address students’ social-emotional challenges.

If the District is interested in looking to invest their large reserves in ways that support students and families, they should consider compensating their existing resource managers commensurate with their colleagues, or they should consider re-evaluating their relationship to contractual mental health services and instead invest in experienced certified employees starting with the existing resource managers and their supervisors. Our students are worth the investment.

Keith Bullock, an Oak Park resident, is a licensed clinical social worker and a school social worker at a Chicago-area high school.

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