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West Fargo schools to add at least 21 mental health staff as need for support grows

West Fargo officials, as well as other school district officials have said the support for more mental health help has increased greatly since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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WEST FARGO — With mental health support needs growing significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, West Fargo Public Schools will see nearly two dozen additional mental health support staff such as social workers, counselors and psychologists join the district after securing a $12 million grant from the Department of Education.

Annie Richards, director of Behavioral Health and Wellness, obtained the grant, which will pay $12 million to the district over a period of five years and is enough to hire at least 21 additional mental health professionals who will be working in the elementary, middle and high schools.

West Fargo officials, as well as other school district officials, have said the support for more mental health help has increased greatly since the pandemic began.

There was a 4% increase in total referrals in West Fargo during the 2020-21 school year, but that number increased to 31% the following school year, with referrals growing yet again this year at a disproportionate rate to West Fargo's enrollment growth.

West Fargo became the first district in North Dakota to create a department centered on behavioral health and wellness, according to district officials.

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The West Fargo School Board on Monday, Jan. 9, approved hiring 10 of those positions for just over $800,300.

Professions include four additional counselors for about $345,820 per year, three social workers for $195,180, two school psychologists for $172,910 and one additional educator wellness facilitator for $86,455.

All positions will be fully funded through the grant program.

The salary numbers represent not just an annual salary, but also the average estimated benefits cost including the district’s cost of retirement contributions.

"It's a good reminder of how much we spend on benefits," Business Manager Levi Bachmeier said.

Monday's request to hire is considered the first phase of using the grant money. Additional positions, like added therapists, will be brought to the board in the future.

Richards said the four new counselors will be mostly assigned to the elementary school level.

"One of our primary goals with our overall number of social workers is to lessen the amount of sites each social worker has to travel to," she said.

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Human Resources Director Brittnee Nikle said the staff will sign grant contracts, meaning the positions may or may not be sustained after the five years. Richards expects the positions can be sustained in the future as the school district continues to grow, however.

"By the end of this grant, we expect to have many more students and we would need these positions anyways," Richards said.

Most of the grant-funded positions already exist in the district, with the exception of the wellness facilitator, which Richards pointed out as critical.

Wellness facilitators will help support the mental health professionals as they get acclimated to the district and track data throughout the next couple of years, Richards said. The position may not be continued after the five-year period, although it could be if data supports it.

Not counting the additional staff, West Fargo has an aggregated ratio of mental health service providers to students of 60.8 providers to 13,020 students.

West Fargo currently has 38 counselor positions, two career counselor positions and 11 school psychologists.

There are currently 10 licensed social workers who accept referrals from any teacher, administrator or counselor through an online referral form. Social workers respond to each referral by following up with the referring educator and the family to determine the level of support needed.

In Fargo, there are 15 social workers/student wellness and family facilitators, 43 school counselors and seven school psychologists, according to Communications Director and Executive Assistant to the Superintendent and School Board AnnMarie Campbell.

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In Moorhead Area Public Schools, there are 16.5 counselors, seven social workers, six school psychologists, five student support facilitators, 10 behavioral interventionists and one homeless liaison, according to Executive Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations Brenda Richman.

To strategize the mental health needs of students and staff, the district created Richards' role as a director in August. Previously she worked as a district behavior coordinator since 2019.

Fargo Public Schools implemented a facilitator in 2014, and Moorhead followed suit the next year.

Between 2014 and 2017, Fargo's facilitator served about 181 students, over half of whom were elementary students. In Moorhead, 91 students were served in 2016, mostly in the middle schools.

Monday's hiring spree is the second time in recent years West Fargo has received a grant to implement innovative mental health-related initiatives.

In 2017, West Fargo partnered with United Way of Cass-Clay and Sanford Health and received a $50,000 grant to hire a wellness facilitator for K-12 students.

The student wellness facilitator, a specially trained social worker, connects students and their parents to appropriate mental health providers, and the facilitator can help set up initial and follow-up appointments.

READ MORE FROM WEST FARGO EDITOR WENDY REUER
West Fargo City Commissioner Mandy George hopes the proposed program will keep day care providers open, as well as help open new centers.

Readers can reach West Fargo editor Wendy Reuer at wreuer@forumcomm.com or 701-241-5530 . Follow her on Twitter @ForumWendy .

As the West Fargo editor, Wendy Reuer covers all things West Fargo for The Forum and oversees the production of the weekly Pioneer.
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