In Western Heights, one of the Oklahoma City metro area’s poorest school districts, Superintendent Joe Kitchens depends on school social workers to help his students, but come next year they won't be there.
“The children are at stake,” he said. “We're in the student business and to see those kind of programs evaporate it leaves a special kind of hole in your heart.”
In March, the state Department of Human Services announced it would be cutting $25 million from the budget. The Department of Human Services also said it will be ending contracts for in-school social workers.
The program has been in place since the early 1990’s and was meant to direct families in need to state programs for assistance. Social workers mainly populate inner-city and rural schools where poverty rates are highest. In Western Heights, the program allowed as many as 200 children to have at least one meal a day according to Kitchens.
School based social workers are paid partially by the district and partially through federal grant funds. DHS is in charge of oversight of the program at a county level.
Across the state, 72 schools use the school based social worker program and that means hundreds of kids in each school. According to DHS, social workers spend most of their time helping students and their families find the right resources, from food stamps to shelters to family counseling.
“This is a result of the budget crisis and this isn't a cut we want to make but we have to have as many employees as we can focusing on our core business needs,” DHS spokesperson Katelynn Burns said. Burns added the social workers were offered transfers to other parts of DHS or were offered voluntary buyouts.
“It's one of the saddest things that I know about to have to say we're not going to be able to do that program again.”
Kitchens said he knows state funds are tight and for a while thought the district may be able to keep a social worker around, but it wasn't in the budget. So now he's left hoping the state can turn things around to bring back help for students who need it most.
“We can't say much about ourselves as a state if we can't take care of the children,” Kitchens said.
The cuts to DHS are expected to go into effect in June.