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Carrington returns to Morris Area board

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The Morris Area School Board seated recently retired board member Laura Carrington to fill an open seat on an interim basis.

Board member Brent Fuhrman was reelected to a four-year term in November 2008 but took a leave of absence beginning last month. Fuhrman, a National Guard Sergeant, will be deployed overseas this spring for between 12 and 14 months.

Carrington did not file for reelection last fall and retired from the board in December, but she was contacted about serving in Fuhrman's absence and was seated by a unanimous vote at Monday's regular board meeting.

In other board business:

• Member reviewed a budget and enrollment update from Superintendent Scott Monson, who was unable to attend Tuesday's meeting because of illness.

Board chairman Kurt Gartland also read a statement signalling that the district could seek a staff wage freeze as part of the board's budget deficit solutions.

A freeze could help the district maintain high-quality education, retain staff and keep class sizes down in the face of a world-wide economic downturn and uncertain state funding, Gartland said.

"This is not viewed as a long-term strategy but as a reaction to the current economy," Gartland said.

A freeze, which would have to be negotiated with union employees, would be lifted if the economic climate improves, he said.

"This isn't fun for staff, for the board, for anybody," Gartland said. "But we'll get through this."

Currently, the district is facing a deficit of almost $51,000 for the 2009 fiscal year, and preliminary budget figures indicate a $292,000 deficit for the 2010 fiscal year.

The board also passed a resolution asking teachers to waive a portion of a 2 percent staff development stipulation in contracts. The board and teachers have agreed to this in the past.

Last year, $109,000 was earmarked for staff development, but teachers approved reducing that amount to $40,000, which gave the district $69,000 for other budget items. There is no timeline yet for a vote of teachers on the issue.

Board member Lory Lemke said all possible efforts were being made to "reach the ($292,000 deficit) and hopefully put together a package (of reductions) that doesn't include personnel."

• Teacher Dave Johnson's request for a three-year leave of absence sparked a lengthy debate about the pros and cons of leaves.

Several board members objected to the length of Johnson's requested leave, saying it could compromise the search for the best talent if prospective replacements are aware the position could be open for just one or two years.

However, Carrington, a former teachers, said leaves of absences are vital to keeping staff fresh and up to date on education.

Board members, such as Stan Wulf, praised Johnson's contributions to the district, but Wulf noted that "my first priority is to the district and I don't see how this leave will benefit the district," adding that it could shrink the pool of talented replacements.

Board member Dick Metzger concurred.

"Dave's done a phenomenal job, but I think (a three-year leave) handicaps us as far as recruitment."

Lemke said that, concerning leaves of absence, the board would benefit from more information. If a teacher were leaving for more schooling or a fellowship, the leave would be OK. If the teacher were leaving to seek a career switch, the leave would not benefit the district.

Carrington's compromise motion for a two-year leave died for lack of a second, and a proposal for a one-year leave. It passed with board members Mark McNally, James Solvie, Gartland, Lemke and Carrington voting in favor, and Metzger and Wulf voting no.

• Lee Johnston and John Moser, of the Morris Area FFA Alumni Board, updated the board on the success of vocational education in the Morris Area High School.

Although complete statistics hadn't been compiled, Johnston said there's been a marked enrollment increase in agricultural, technical, career and other vocational class offerings since 2004, and that FFA membership also has been on the rise.

Johnston said reviewing the accomplishments was appropriate during National FFA Week, Feb. 21-28.

Among the highlights he noted were Rachel Wulf serving as a National FFA Officer in 2004, Rachel and Rita Wulf serving as State FFA Officers in 2003 and 2008, respectively, and the chapter being named Outstanding Agriculture Program/FFA Chapter in the region in 2008.

In 2008, vocational and agriculture block classes were reestablished for 7th and 8th graders, a FFA Junior Officer Team was established for the first time, and ag teacher Natasha Mortenson was a state semifinalist for Teacher of the Year. Mortenson also became the first ag teacher to participate in the Minnesota Soybean Growers' International Marketing Tour.

The Career and Technical Career Fair in 2008 drew about 275 people, as well as representative from numerous educational institutions to visit with prospective students, Johnston said.

• The board honored the MAHS One-Act Play cast for its "starred performance" at the state One-Act Play Festival. A starred performance is the highest honor that can be achieved at the festival.

The One-Act Play cast's performance of "Lysistrata Interruptae" won both the 5A sub-section and section competitions.

Morris Area was among four of eight Class A casts at the state festival to earn starred performances.

Morris Area casts have made 12 appearances in the state festival and earned starred performances in 1963, 1978, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2009