A three-year-old program to treat "mentally troubled," alcoholic and drug abusing school employes is being questioned by the new conservative majority of the Montgomery County School Board.
The director of the program, however, has argued that troubled employes are costing the system as much as $7 million a year in excessive sick leave and reduced job performance. The director, Miriam K. Cameron, is asking the school board to increase her budget in an effort to treat the problems that result in "hidden costs" to the system.
Cameron's $95,000 Employe Assistance Program is one of a number of administrative services that face possible cuts by the county school board, which today begins final action on Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo's $287.1 million operating budget.
The board's majority, headed by president Marian Greenblatt, have made clear its intention to spend more money in the classroom by reducing class size and markedly increasing supplies such as textbooks.
That means administrative programs such as human relations, computer instruction and employe asaistance could face cuts, according to board member Joseph Barse. "There are a number of things in the administration I'm not sure the system should be involved in," he said. "One of them is employe assistance. A minor cut there could be in order."
Undaunted, Cameron said yesterday, "I'm simply not resigned to accepting a cut. Some administrators feel defeated, I'm not. I refuse to believe the board is insensitive."
Cameron said her calculations about the "hidden cost" of personal problems were based on national estimates that, according to Cornell University professor Harrison Trice, show that as many as 10 percent of any private or public body's employes have problems with alcohol, and that an equal percentage are mentally or emotionally disturbed.
Cameron estimated that 2,550 of the system's 12,000 employes suffer from mental disorders that impair job performance and produce high rates of absenteeism. The $7 million figure was achieved by multiplying the estimated number of "troubled employes" by their average salary and adding 25 percent more in extraneous costs, such as sick leave and the money needed to hire substitutes.
Trice said the 3-year-old Montgomery school program has been "one of a kind as far as public education is concerned."
The program consists of one fulltime counselor and two part-time counselors. Since its creation in 1976, it has offered emergency counseling to workers experiencing emotional crises, as well as normal counseling by appointment and referral services to more than 400 school employes.
Counseling in the program is provided free of charge to school employes. If an employe is referred to outside specialists for therapy, he must pay.
According to Cameron, the program's clients have included alcoholic principals, emotionally distrubed teachers, and bus drivers who have abused drugs. Other problems have included marital, legal and financial difficulties.
Cameron said the program acts as a bridge between clients and public and private rehabilitation services in the area.
"In Montgomery County people earn more and are better educated and they expect a great deal from public schools," she said, "That puts enormous pressure on teachers, administrators and principals. I mean it's an odd thing to think a school system would have a service like ours."
Cameron said the best thing about the program is its cost effectiveness. "The board is really concerned about saving money. They can save money if people on the job are healthy and happy. That's why we're needed," she said.
Trice said more than 400 businesses across the country have set up employe assistance programs in the last two decades, hoping to increase job production. He said the alcohol and drug problems affecting workers in private industry parallel those of public employes.
Board member Carol Wallace said she was "astounded" by Cameron's figures, but questioned whether the school system should "be in a business like that."
"It's a matter of philosophy," she said. "We want to deliver services to kids, primarily, and save taxpayer's money... The program may work and it may not. I'm not sure."
The board's majority members said they expected to chop at least $8 million from Bernardo's recommended budget, to comply with the County Council's request to hold the school budget increase to 3 percent over last year's budget.