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Gov. Bill Lee speaks to local media at the front of McConnell Elementary School on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 in Hixson, Tenn., after presenting the school with the Governor's Civic Seal, an award given to schools and districts that prioritize teaching the nation's history and core values, according to Lee's office. (Troy Stolt/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)

With the pandemic highlighting the importance of students' physical, social and emotional health, an influential Tennessee committee is urging Gov. Bill Lee to prioritize more funding for school nurses and counselors next year.

An annual investment of about $110 million would get Tennessee to nationally recommended ratios of nurses and counselors in public schools, according to the panel of government and education officials that annually reviews the state's education funding formula.

The improvements, outlined Monday in a letter to Lee, would allow Tennessee to fund one nurse for every 750 students instead of the current ratio of 1 to 3,000.

Tennessee also could fund one counselor for every 250 students. Currently, the state covers the cost of one counselor for every 500 students in elementary schools and one per 350 students in grades seven through 12.

The recommendations mark the first time Tennessee's BEP Review Committee has elevated both needs to the top of its priority list for how to improve public education through the funding formula known as the Basic Education Program.

The top billing acknowledges what education experts have been saying for a long time: Healthier students are better learners.

The committee's endorsement boosts the likelihood that Lee and the legislature will seriously consider investing in needs state officials have long discussed but deemed too costly.

Last year, the governor and lawmakers followed the panel's recommendation to maintain funding for public schools in this year's budget, even as student enrollment declined due to the pandemic. And former Gov. Bill Haslam heeded the panel's suggestions when building several of his spending plans, resulting in hundreds of millions of additional dollars allocated toward teacher compensation.

In its letter, the 22-member BEP committee said nurses are critical "to meet the needs of all students, and in light of the ongoing public health crisis."

The panel also cited the "expanded role and scope of responsibilities of school counselors," who create comprehensive programs focused on student outcomes and help students navigate paths toward college and career opportunities.

The letter was signed by Lillian Hartgrove, a member of the BEP panel and chairwoman of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Lee was traveling Tuesday in East Tennessee, and his press secretary, Casey Black, said the governor was reviewing the committee's recommendations.

Earlier this year, as the pandemic continued to take a toll on student wellbeing, Lee championed a budget that included a $250 million trust fund to address student mental health through annual investment income — but did not include extra money to quickly hire more school nurses, counselors, social workers and psychologists.

A leader with the Tennessee School Counselors Association lauded the prospect of more funding for the 2022-23 fiscal year, which begins next July.

"We have definitely never been at the top of this list before," said Lauren Baker, who serves on the association's board of directors.

Baker said the ratio of counselors to students is especially dire in elementary and middle schools, since much of Tennessee's counseling focus is on college and career readiness. But the early grades are just as important, she said.

"A lot of industry people have talked to our Tennessee leaders about college graduates struggling to regulate their emotions or having difficulty with communication or problem-solving skills. If we don't start teaching those core competencies to children, it's much harder to teach them as adults," Baker said Tuesday.

Most districts already hire more nurses and counselors than are funded through the BEP formula. Providing more state funding for those areas would free up local funds for other needs, including teacher compensation, technology, or hiring more specialists for the state's 7-year-old instructional intervention program. All three of those items rounded out the committee's Top 5 list of recommended funding priorities.

Tennessee schools have received $4 billion-plus in federal relief funding — a historic amount — to pay for COVID-19-related expenses that range from learning recovery and acceleration programs to improved ventilation systems for school buildings. But that money must be spent or obligated by September 2024, when it will no longer be available to fill recurring expenses such as salaries.

Still, many districts are using the federal funds to hire more nurses and counselors temporarily — an approach that kicks the can down the road, said Robert Eby, vice chairman of the state Board of Education.

"I think we need to realize that the [federal] funds are one time only," Eby said at a recent BEP Review Committee meeting. "They weren't originally in there for recurring costs."

At the same meeting, Hartgrove addressed naysayers who say the federal infusion of cash should be enough for now.

"In reality, these are temporary pots of money to assist with the current crisis. But you have a long-term need, regardless of the pandemic," she said.

Tennessee should prioritize funding more school nurses and counselors, says key panel was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: bit.ly/tnchalk.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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