Two schools. Both use the acronym MHS. Both could justify "Eye of the Tiger" as their school song. Both are in cities with four-year universities. And, as of July, both have had Scott Monson as their superintendent.
Monson is a few days away from his first day of school in his new hometown, as he replaces Klint Willert as the lead administrator of Marshall Public Schools. And whether the school chooses the color scheme orange-and-black or black-and-orange, it seems Monson will be the perfect fit in Marshall.
"There are a lot of similarities," he said in a recent interview. "The diversity is similar, too, although in Marshall there's more ethnic diversity than in Morris."
The similarities surpass mere coincidence, but one thing that will take some getting used to for Monson is the size of his new district. The number of students he will be dealing with has doubled. He said in grades pre-K-12 in Morris, there were just over 1,000 students enrolled; Marshall had over 2,000 in 2013. Quite a difference, but Monson sees that as a challenge, not something to back away from.
"I think anytime you increase the number of students, consequently there's an increase in the number of staff, the number of opportunities and programs and initiatives, said Monson. "It will be a challenge, but it's also one I'm pretty excited about."
Morris and Marshall also differ in the number of school buildings each city has - in Morris, there is a private school, plus a facility that houses all other pre-K-12 students. Within that facility are two separate schools - pre-K-fifth grade and the high school, which is 6-12 grades.
Monson said there are a lot of great things going on in Marshall. He calls the Marshall High School building a "gem" and credits the administration for its fiscal stewardship and guiding the school during times when state funding wasn't made available.
"Schools are struggling; if you don't have increasing enrollment - the students generate roughly 75 percent of our general fund revenue, give or take - you have to weigh every decision carefully," he said. "Really look at the impact and effect of different things, how we spend our dollars. And we need to look at the mechanisms available to us."
Monson said the money the state allocates toward education does just enough to provide students with a basic form of education and that if a school wants to go "above and beyond" it has to find other revenue sources.
"What percent of districts in Minnesota don't have operating levies?" he said. "We have to look at all our funding options."
If "above and beyond" is the goal, Monson and the school district need to be on the attack when going over their options and always be on the hunt for new ways to keep their students enriched. They need to be proactive. They need to look as far down the road as they can, not just to the next block.
This is a great school district with great teachers, but no administration can ever, ever rest on its laurels. When it comes to paying for things, Monson knows going to the voters and coming away empty handed could become more of a reality in the future since schools are relying so heavily on voter-approved referenda these days. In truth though, there very well could come a day when all voters will tell schools to keep their hands off their checkbooks.
"I think that's always a fear for school administrators and school boards," Monson said. "I think that's where having experienced staff who have been in the district for a long time and have been through those processes and having a well-thought out financial plan is important. It's also important that we communicate. In my experience, when we've educated and involved people and said, 'Here's what we've identified as our needs, here's why, here's what it will look like,' people will support that."
Yes, Monson does have a challenge ahead of him, and not just because he's now dealing with more students and more staff in Marshall. His is a challenge all our school leaders have: keeping up with technology on a budget. We think Monson will stare down this challenge and others that will come his way, and with the help of a veteran staff will continue to find ways to keep the schools in Marshall moving forward in every way possible.
As another school year closes in on us, we wish him the best of luck.