APS employee counseling service changes spark concern

Albuquerque Public Schools
Albuquerque Public Schools

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Albuquerque Public Schools has an upcoming $9.5 million budget hole to fill and one of the changes that the district is targeting will impact a big program aimed at helping employees in crisis.

Come July 2016, APS says it will make staffing cuts to its in-house counseling services which fall under the “Employee Assistance Program.” The program is being reorganized and shuffled to another APS department.

While the district says the changes will help better serve employees dealing with severe stress, others fear that the changes will force more employees to deal with problems on their own.

Sylvia Romero is one APS employee who’s expressing concern with the change. Romero has worked with the district for near 16 years are an elementary school “health assistant” in the school nurse’s office.

“It’s important to me to be there,” said Romero, who works at John Baker Elementary School in Albuquerque’s northeast heights.

Romero works with kids each day, mainly helping deal with cuts, scrapes and other accidents.

“The… most important reason I do it is because I love the kids,” said Romero.

But this school year hasn’t been easy for her because of what’s happened in her life outside of work. “My mom died of lung cancer in July of 2015,” said Romero. “It was devastating.”

Romero says those feelings affected her work for months.

“It was just overwhelming actually,” said Romero.

She says she’s better today because of an APS benefit program that helped her.

“I needed the help to get through,” said Romero.

Romero was able to get free counseling through APS’ “Employee Assistance Program,” or EAP. The in-house service mainly deals with counseling for issues like stress or life crisis, workplace conflicts or couples or family issues.

According to APS, more than 1,300 district employees and family member used the service last school year.

“I say it saved my life…. because it did,” said Romero.

While the district sees the benefits of the program, it says EAP is subject to change now.

“It’s going to be downsized a little bit,” said Kris Meurer, executive of APS’ Student, Family and Community Supports Division.

Starting in July, APS is aiming to cut one of the two full-time in-house counselors and change the program’s hours.

“Although we have two people right now, because of their work time that they’re doing.. they’re not seeing as many employees as somebody would with an adjusted schedule,” said Meurer.

In exchange, APS says the one counselor left in the program will be in charge of an estimated 2,600 appointments the office generates each school year. They believe the change will mean more efficiency.

“We can see that many with one employee,” said Meurer.

That counselor will also work during the summer, something APS says it has never offered before.

“The restructuring and changes in APS are really to benefit employee,” said Meurer.

APS says it’s also planning to move the EAP from the oversight of the district’s “Risk Management” division, and into the “Student, Family, Community Supports” division. Under its new division, EAP will also have access to a psychologist. APS says that will allow district employees and their families to access services for more severe mental health issues, like “threat assessments.” A threat assessment is done when an employee or their family member is thought to pose a threat to themselves or others.

Knowing how the program impacted her life, Sylvia Romero just hopes the district is right about the changes.

“I just think it’s important that the people who engage with your children on a daily basis that you help them,” said Romero.

APS says the changes will save $100,000 by eliminating one counselor and secretary for the program.

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