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Morris Area School Board passes budget with $150,000 deficit

MORRIS – The Morris Area School Board passed a final budget for the 2013 – 2014 school year on Monday that includes a projected $151,000 deficit but does not include addition time for counseling despite some pressure from parents to do so.

The general fund has proposed revenue of $9.75 million and proposed expenditures of $9.9 million for a deficit of about $151,000, said Superintendent Scott Monson.

Monson said he has had some questions about what the budget would look like if the district were not consolidating with Cyrus.

Based on “well-informed guesstimates” Monson said the district would likely be facing a deficit of close to $375,000 due to lost general education expenses and transition aid.

Over the course of the budget development process, the board has approved several additions for the 2013 – 2014 school year, including:

• $16,000 .25 Full Time Equivalent staff member to help non-English speaking students;

• $1,700 for an assistant advisor for the Business Professionals of America program;

• $7,600 for one additional hour of physical education at the elementary school;

• $14,200 to add one period of music staff at the high school and one hour per day at the elementary school; and

• $6,100 for website maintenance.

One addition that did not make it into the final budget is another school counselor. In April, several parents spoke to the school board about adding a new position, arguing that adequate counseling support is fundamental to student success.

Concerned parents organized a petition, which gathered about 40 signatures during the week it was available, said parent Jennifer Amy-Dressler.

On Monday, Amy-Dressler said the district's counseling ratio of one counselor to 1,000 students is “thoroughly inadequate” and an “utter embarrassment” for the district.

“What is it going to take to provide the staffing that our children deserve?” she asked. “Are we going to have to see our test scores return to lower levels – and I know we're doing fabulously now, but at some point something has to give.”

On Monday, the district Finance Committee – board members Kurt Gartland, Dick Metzger and Jamie Solvie – did not recommend adding a half-time counselor into the budget. During the meeting, Gartland outlined several reasons for the finance committee's recommendation:

• The district has other initiatives in place like the Olweus anti-bullying program, a school resource officer through Morris Police Department, and support from district staff for career issues.

• The district's priority has been to keep class sizes low compared to other districts, even those with higher student-to-counselor ratios.

“We think it's best for students to receive more individualist attention from teachers which benefits them academically and socially,” said Gartland.

• The proposed cuts to technology and capital expenses were for areas that the district has historically under-spent, while staff deserve the raises they have been given.

• Principals Ken Gagner and Craig Peterson are both finishing their first year, and will continue to develop a plan to help support counseling work and improve efficiency.

• Even without a counselor, the district is facing a deficit of $151,000 for the upcoming year despite having an additional $180,000 in transition aid for the consolidation with the Cyrus School District and a 1.5 percent increase in state funding.

The only option is to raise more revenue through increased enrollment or a tax levy, or to cut expenses.

“About 78 percent of expenses are for staffing and 60 percent of those staffing costs are teachers,” said Gartland. “With no room to cut back on building maintenance or services, cutbacks will affect class sizes or student support in one shape or another.”

Before the budget was approved, board member Lory Lemke proposed adding a half-time counselor at a cost of $27,000 per year that would be paid for by making small cuts from other budget areas that would be presented to the board for approval next month.

Lemke made a similar motion at the school board meeting in May, but proposed paying for the position by cutting $9,000 specifically from the technology, building, and staff salary lines.

In explaining his motion, Lemke emphasized that he wanted adding the counselor to be a budget neutral decision by making small cuts to some miscellaneous areas of the budget like school board travel expenses.

“I don't want to belittle the cuts since every part of our budget is important, but I believe and I think that you should agree that a counseling position is a position that will have a direct impact on students,” he said.

Like last month, Lemke's motion did not get a second from any of the other board members present – Gartland, Metzger, Solvie or Stan Wulf – so it was not officially discussed or voted on.

Although the budget has now been approved for the 2013 – 2014 school year, Amy-Dressler said she was looking forward to discussing the counseling situation further with the school board.

“Many of us continue to have a fundamental disagreement with the [finance] committee about the importance of the services of a qualified school counselor if we are serious about becoming the finest school district in west central Minnesota and serious about the lives and futures of all our students,” she said in an e-mail.