Morris Area Board hears statements from Morris Area Teachers Association

It was a full house at the Feb. 20 meeting of the Morris Area School Board. Several teachers attended the meeting representing the Morris Area Teachers Association in a show of advocation for ongoing negotiations regarding pay.

Teachers Kevin Pope and Seth Kelly both stood in front of the board to give testimony. Pope, who has served the Morris Area School District as a teacher and coach for 15 years, spoke to the board about the theme of appreciation. He stated that in his time with the district, he has been told many times that he is appreciated, and in turn, appreciates the opportunity to work at Morris Area Schools, the support the school receives from the community, working in a financially strong district, and most of all the families and students served. “I try to show this appreciation through the work that I do, by always trying to put my best effort forward for my students, and regularly working beyond the confines of my contract and expectations, often placing the needs of my students above the needs of my family and myself,” he said, “However, I do not appreciate feeling undervalued, demeaned, threatened and unappreciated.” Pope went on to say that he, as well as other teachers and staff, had heard the board express appreciation for them without action to match. “These actions have valued our teachers ninth out of nine comparable local districts in combined salary and healthcare,” he added, “in fact, even if we include the proposed 4% increase, our teachers would still be valued less out of these nine districts.” Pope pointed out that at the last negotiations meeting, the board reminded the teachers that it is not their responsibility to provide affordable housing in Morris, and offered advice on how prevention on [the teachers’] part could reduce their healthcare costs. According to Pope, they were also reminded how the district’s strong financial position has allowed them to finance large projects, like the roof project, without having to ask the community for funding. “Again, I appreciate our district maintaining a strong financial position, however, it is also important to point out that it is not the responsibility of the staff to make this financing happen,” Pope said. He then stated that when the negotiation cycle began, school districts across the state of Minnesota were given a 4% year-one increase and a 2% year-two increase in state funding. The Morris Area School Board has proposed a 4% year one increase with a 4% year two increase while adding that this is the largest increase in at least 40 years. “Essentially, saying that we should be appreciative,” Pope said, “This is all about appreciation. This total 8% increase would be greatly appreciated, except, that the state is providing our district with a 6% increase over this same period. That makes it feel like our district budgeted a mere 2% increase for us, the staff. The largest increase in 40 years would still leave our teachers valued at or near the bottom of comparable districts.” Pope went on to end his testimony by saying that he doesn’t know how the staff at Morris Area Schools are supposed to interpret the district’s employee strategy as anything other than unappreciation. “There are many fulfilling reasons that have led me into the teaching profession, and money is not very high on that list. However, I never thought that it would be a profession leaving me feeling undervalued and unappreciated. Every superintendent and every school board member who has sat in your chairs has told us that we are appreciated. You now have an opportunity to let your actions match those words,” he concluded.

Seth Kelly, another faculty member at Morris Area Schools, stated to the board that when he came to this district 12 years ago, he was astounded by the brilliance of the students, “thanks to these people behind me,” as he gestured to the group of faculty seated behind him. “I left because I couldn’t afford to teach, and was getting more in debt teaching,” he said, “I came back because I figured out a way to make it work, but this healthcare stuff is killing us. It’s killing me.” Kelly stated that he has a daughter with medical conditions that require a lot of care, and he recently found out that Ortonville schools have agreed to pay for a family plan for their staff, and they are in one of the poorest districts, in one of the poorest counties in the state. “We know that we can do better,” he stated, “I need to feel like I’m in a place where my family can be protected, and I don’t feel that right now, and I know I’m not alone. I want you to understand that everybody in this room cares so much about our students, and that’s why we’re a successful school, but you’re going to start pushing people away.” Kelly concluded by saying, “I don’t like to complain, I like to work, and I like to teach that to my students. You don’t complain about what you get, you work to try to resolve it and use your communication skills to make the world a little better. I feel so compelled at this point that I couldn’t sit back anymore, and I hope that you hear this with open minds and open hearts, because there are people among us who are caring for our children who deeply want to be here but aren’t sure if they can continue.”

2024 Referendum Update

Representatives from ISG, Inc. gave a presentation to the board on the 2024 referendum plan. ISG, Inc. is an architecture and engineering firm that is providing drawings, quotes, and plans for the proposed referendum. 

Superintendent Shane Monson said that the conversations began with the growing need for more space in the elementary school. From there, more detailed looks district-wide and into what the future will bring. As enrollment grows, and these kids continue through the school system, the lack of space will become a problem at the high school as well. 

The idea is that moving early childhood education to a dedicated space where they could all be together would open up elementary space and provide an opportunity for the sixth graders to move from the high school back into the elementary school and in turn free up classroom space in the high school.

Original plans for the expansion featured a “pod” structure to be constructed, but as discussions continued and more needs were identified, an actual building addition was decided upon. The addition will be located at the north end of the school and will curve along with the existing parking lot. The construction will also leave room if, in the future, any more expansions are needed. It will include a safe and secure entry, remodeling to the reception area, lighting to the tennis court, adding toilets and storage onto the existing garage, and some space for spectator seating.

School board members asked whether a safe and secure entry for the high school could also be considered, to which board member Kurt Wulf replied that they would discuss that to add it in.

The total project cost as presented is $12,718,750.00.

Tax Impact (assuming 14-year financing):

Type of property ($)Estimated market value ($)Estimated referendum tax impact ($)
Estimated annual tax impact
Residential homestead50,00010.50
Ag Homestead (average value per acre)4,0000.21
Ag Non-Homestead4,0000.42
(Average Value per acre)5,0000.53