School board postpones decision on contract for remote counselor

The school board has tabled until next month a proposal to contract for remote counseling services for Wrangell students next year, instead of hiring a full-time counselor to work in the schools.

The board voted May 20 to table the motion after hearing concerns from faculty and a board member.

Schools Superintendent Bill Burr said the decision to contract for a remote K-12 counselor wasn’t an intentional change of direction. “We posted the position and then we looked at the applicants,” he said. “The hiring committee looked at the best all around.”

The district’s current counselor left the job at the end of the school year.

Board member Brittani Robbins moved to approve a contract with Lindsay Pinkelman, of Find a Way Consulting, based in Delta Junction, 95 miles southeast of Fairbanks, which was seconded by board member Liz Roundtree. The district would pay Pinkelman $70,000 for the 2024-2025 school year.

Pinkelman’s LinkedIn page lists her as a counselor for IDEA Homeschool, a correspondence program run by the Galena City School District, and as a host and producer of the Voices of IDEA Homeschool podcast.

The proposed contract stipulates that any travel to Wrangell by Pinkelman, who is a quadriplegic, would be reimbursed by the district to include caregiver and travel expenses as well as room and board when travel is requested by the district.

Teachers Mikki Angerman, Heather Howe, Laura Davies and her husband Winston Davies all spoke at the school board meeting against remote counseling services.

“This choice is not in the best interests of our children, especially given everything our community has gone through this year,” Angerman said, referring to last year’s November landslide. “After such a traumatic event, the need for in-person social and emotional support is more critical than ever. No matter how skilled a virtual counselor, it cannot replace the empathy and understanding that comes from face-to-face interaction.”

Winston Davies said he felt “blindsided” by the proposed contract when teachers were informed at a staff meeting on May 13.

“There was no input from the staff. … We would have had a heads-up had there been a teacher on the hiring committee, which is not a practice anymore,” he said, adding that there was a teacher on the hiring committee when he was hired 16 years ago, and he sat on similar committees over the years. “We’ve gotten away from that somehow, and I’m not sure why.”

Wrangell’s past in-person counselor also taught classes, and Laura Davies expressed concerns as a parent how a change to remote counseling could put other classes at risk.

“I know the school board has a really hard choice in what to do to get a counselor, but I’m advocating for having a human body in the building,” she said.

With her young daughter perched on her hip, Howe expanded on how an in-person counselor generally takes on additional duties integral to the functioning of the schools.

“At the high school level alone,” she said, that includes helping students who want to apply to college, organizing the annual award ceremony, “and making connections with the community to provide exposure to career opportunities for our students.”

That work will fall onto other staff members, she said.

Howe and Winston Davies both commented on the $70,000 contract amount. “A teacher with 10 years of experience earns $69,545 in our district,” Howe said. “While it is acknowledged that the contractor would not receive benefits, this discrepancy still raises concerns.”

“It took me a long time to reach that amount,” Winston Davies said.

Angerman described the current practice of having a counselor on site as “vital” to advise on academic matters. “This requires a deep understanding of our students, teachers and families,” she said. “Knowledge that a virtual counselor, unfamiliar with our community, cannot possess.”

Howe also felt that the duties and goals as laid out in the contract weren’t clearly specified. Student meetings weren’t explicitly listed as part of the duties listed in the contract. “This omission is concerning, as direct contact with students is fundamental in effective counseling.”

Also, the counselor would be able to set their own work hours, which Howe said could hinder their ability to engage with students and staff.

When school board president Dave Wilson opened the discussion to board members, John DeRuyter, a clinical psychologist, said: “I’ve worked with families and children for 25 years, and never did any distance work or video counseling until COVID,” he said. “The quality of care, just because of the dynamics of it … significantly decreased.”

DeRuyter added that while remote counseling may provide a level of convenience, “there’s a huge number of problems that come with it, that compromise the ability to do good care,” adding that one of a school counselor’s primary goals is to support the mental health of students to maximize their academic performance. “From that perspective, I simply can’t support a distance school counselor.”

After hearing the perspectives of the teachers and DeRuyter, the board voted unanimously to table any action on the contract until the next school board meeting.

To accommodate a quorum, the school board meeting originally scheduled for June 17 has been rescheduled for Monday, June 3, in Evergreen Elementary School Room 101, beginning at 7 p.m. A public hearing to collect input on the virtual counseling contract will precede the meeting starting at 6:30 p.m.


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