The Omaha school district is exploring a $7.4 million grant from Susie Buffett’s Sherwood Foundation that would increase the corps of school social workers who deal with behavior problems, truancy and connecting families with outside help.

If approved, the grant would allow Omaha Public Schools to hire 40 more social workers over the next several years. OPS currently has nine social workers, mostly spread out across seven high schools, but could use more to reach elementary and middle school students, officials said.

“In a district of 52,000 students ... obviously more than nine social workers would be good for us,” Assistant Superintendent ReNae Kehrberg said at a Feb. 17 board meeting where the proposal was discussed.

The school board could vote on the grant proposal sometime this year.

But at least one board member is questioning the financial implications of hiring more social workers whose salaries and benefits would eventually fall to OPS.

The Sherwood grant would initially cover the salaries of 40 social workers, a supervisor and an external evaluator. About eight social workers would be hired each year for five years, and OPS would start contributing a portion of salaries in the fourth year.

By the sixth and seventh years, OPS could opt to hire 22 additional social workers with district funds and would have to take over all social worker costs from Sherwood. Over the span of four years, those salaries and benefits could cost OPS an estimated $17.8 million.

At the board meeting, member Matt Scanlan called the grant “very generous,” but questioned whether OPS should commit to paying millions of dollars’ worth of future salaries.

“What happens if we start this program and it’s going along great, but ... we can’t support that financially because of cuts in the budget?” he said. “I’d hate to see that go away.”

Superintendent Mark Evans said it would be difficult to predict OPS’s budget and funding picture several years down the line. The state funding formula for schools is frequently tweaked, and Nebraska legislators are currently debating outright eliminating or replacing the Learning Community common levy with other funding sources. With the common levy, OPS came out ahead $2.1 million this year.

“It may be that we can’t support it to that level, I’ll just be quite frank,” Evans said. “Depending on what happens in Lincoln, we don’t know all those dynamics.”

Evans and several other board members acknowledged the large price tag of expanding the current social worker program. But they said the district should seize the opportunity to beef up its mental health and support offerings, especially with philanthropic dollars on the table. The Sherwood Foundation did not return a call seeking comment.

“I look at this and think, yes, it’s expensive, but when you get down the road, maybe we won’t need as many social workers if we can get some issues addressed,” board President Lou Ann Goding said. “But in the first three years you have the opportunity to touch the lives of children who are in very difficult situations.”

Other school districts, including Millard, Bellevue, Papillion-La Vista, Westside and Lincoln, have social workers on staff whose job it is to bridge the gap between what’s happening at school and at home. Millard, which has more than 23,000 students, employs 11 social workers spread out across the district’s elementary, middle and high schools. Lincoln, with an enrollment of nearly 40,000 students, has 29 social workers who visit each school in the district at least a half-day every week.

LaKeisha Bonam is a social worker at Blackburn Alternative School in OPS.

On a typical day she might help a student secure a bus pass, mediate a disagreement between a student and a teacher, or meet with a group of teen parents and bring in a speaker to talk about budgeting or car seat safety. Social workers also make home visits and work with special education students or those with attendance issues.

“That’s one of the biggest things we deal with — getting our kids to come to school,” she said.

Blackburn has one guidance counselor, who focuses more on academics — checking grades and reminding students of college scholarship deadlines. The two work together to cover the academic and social needs of teens, Bonam said.

She might pull a student out of class for a “cool-down” if he or she is mouthing off to the teacher or fighting with another student. A parent might call wondering how her child will get to school now that the family is homeless, or to ask if Bonam can serve as a liaison between the family and a student’s probation officer.

“We let them know we are here, we’re a community here to help and serve students,” Bonam said. “If they can’t focus on all those issues they’re dealing with prior to coming to our building, they can’t be any good in our classroom.”

That’s been the driving philosophy of other programs that have cropped up in the metro region to help students dealing with mental illness or hardships associated with poverty or unstable homes.

“If the family’s not successful, we’re never going to educate that child, because their mind is going to be in 20 other places,” board member Yolanda Williams said. “They’re thinking ‘Where am I going to eat tonight? Where am I going to sleep tonight? Am I ever going to see my mom again?’ When we’re talking about this, let’s think of the child and not the dollars.”

If OPS gets the grant, social workers would be added primarily to elementary and middle schools. Schools struggling with discipline or academic achievement would be prioritized.

“When I look at our persistently low-performing schools, one of the things that always shows up is the need for not only mental health services but also family services ... because these young people are in need,” Evans said.

“I know some community members who say ‘They ought to take care of it themselves,’ ” he continued. “Well, that’s a nice thought, but it doesn’t always happen. The young person deserves the resources regardless.”

Goding asked why more social workers weren’t being directed to the high schools, where students might experience more issues such as teen pregnancy, drugs and homelessness.

“Ideally, we’d love to add 150 positions and put four of them at the high school,” special education director Kara Saldierna said. “We tried to look at where we can have the most effectiveness, where can we do some early interventions? What are the schools that have some of the least amount of support?

“High schools have a lot of students, but they also have a lot of counselors and administrators, where some elementary schools maybe only have a principal and a counselor,” she said.

Scanlan wondered whether OPS could maximize its partnerships with community and government agencies that focus on social work and counseling, instead of schools taking over those responsibilities.

“The job of OPS is education,” he said. “When you get into family issues and social issues, you do need some boundaries to keep you from bleeding over.”

Goding said she’s asked for another presentation next month to answer additional questions, including a breakdown of the different roles and responsibilities of guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists and community counselors.

“I think we need a little clarification as board on that,” she said.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1210, erin.duffy@owh.com

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