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Technology, counseling topics at school board debates

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MORRIS - Over the last two weeks, the five candidates for the Morris Area School Board have met in two forums to answer questions on topics as diverse as the potential consolidation with Cyrus to the district's ongoing commitment to new technology.

Four candidates - incumbents Brent Fuhrman, Dick Metzger and Jamie Solvie, along with challenger Mike Odello - met at a forum held at the American Legion on Oct. 11, 2012.

The next week, they were joined by incumbent Stan Wulf for a second forum organized by a new parent's group at Morris Area Elementary School.

The following is a summary of some questions and responses from both forums.

Counseling services

Question: The district currently has one counselor handling all duties K-12, including college/career counseling. How do the candidates feel about the current situation, and what do they think could be done to improve it?

All five candidates agreed that the district's current counseling situation - one counselor, Tammy Roth, handling the needs for all students - was a problem, but offered different suggestions about how to move forward.

Metzger noted that the board has recognized this need in the district, but said before another counselor was added the district needed to go through a process to see what strengths the district already has in counseling services and how best to add help.

Wulf said counselors work on both "proactive" work with college and career planning and "reactive" issues like behavior issues.

"When the counselor maybe doesn't have enough capacity to get everything done, the obvious answer to that is add capacity," said Wulf.

"We probably need to do that at some point" he continued, but added that the district has made some efforts to makes changes that help reduce the time Roth needs to spend on "reactive" issues and open up some of her time.

Solvie said the board is looking at options to make sure the counselor is being used in the right areas and whether the district size will be able to financially sustain additional counseling staff.

Odello offered statistics for the counselor to student ratio in other districts. Osakis, a district with 864 students, has a counselor, counselor secretary, psychologist and a social worker. ACGC has 790 students and two counselors, he said. Odello suggested adding a secretary or part-time counselor to help ease Roth's workload.

Fuhrman said adding a part-time career counselor or other assistance for Roth should be a priority going into the 2013-2014 budget.

"Tammy does a wonderful job, but we should be helping her out," he said.

School technology

Question: Are we making best use of the technology we have, and getting the technology we need, to prepare students for life after school? Do we need to invest in our teachers for them to make the best use of classroom technology?

Although Wulf said the district is not doing what it should be with technology, he noted the positive investments the school board has authorized in the last year - allocating money for infrastructure, forming a technology committee, and hiring a technology director to help with planning and training.

"I think we probably all would recognize that because of funding we have fallen behind in this area, but I'm feeling good that we're taking steps towards improving," said Wulf.

Solvie noted that over the last two years, the district has invested in technology, adding smartboards to many classrooms and investing in smartboard training. Solvie also cited an upcoming iPad pilot program for students.

Odello praised the iPad program, arguing that eventually the district could look at using ebooks for textbooks that could be more current that print supplies. He suggested applying for capital grants to help find money for infrastructure, but said the district would still need to find money for training.

Metzger praised the district's new technology director, Stephen Lien, noting that he is a former teacher who knows and understands what teachers need when it comes to technology and how to implement new technology - "Having that perspective from our technology director is a huge advantage for our school district."

Fuhrman noted the addition of smartboards in district classrooms, and said the board has worked on a five-year technology plan.

"It is expensive but necessary and this plan is one of our district goals," said Fuhrman.

Student employment

Question: What is your plan to keep our students employed in Stevens County after they graduate?

Fuhrman praised the number of companies in the area that have donated money or time to the district to encourage students. He said that students need to have a broad education to make them appealing to employers, and the district should work with businesses to better see what they are looking for from future employees.

Solvie praised the work Superior Industries and Westmor have done to help students work in each of their departments. He said the district needs to develop curriculum that can help students go on a path directly to work rather than to college.

Odello suggested implementing a career day with many local businesses and find a way to make returning to the community a positive choice for students.

"What's the best way to make them look forward to coming back?" said Odello, suggesting more arts opportunities as an appeal of the community.

Metzger noted that there is a challenge to balance educating students who want to go directly into the workforce with those who would like to go to college. He suggested improving community partnerships between the district and local businesses, praising the work of Ag instructors Natasha Mortenson and Nick Milbrandt.

District voters will have the chance to elect four of the five candidates when they go to the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 6.