In January 2021, two long-term board members ‘retired’ from serving the Morrill Public School’s Board of Education. Their joint 30 years of experience (one with 16 years and the other with 14 years) will be missed, there is no doubt. They participated on the school board at Morrill through some particularly difficult times, and in fact came to the school board wanting to see significant improvements; they both are confident that the school is in better shape at the time of their departure than it was in the early years of their terms.
Their long-term investments for the betterment of students is worth a tribute to: who they are, what they saw, how they led and the impact their leadership made.
Jim Hessler has been married to his wife, Sarah for 27 years. Jim farms in the south east part of the school district, Sarah helps on the farm and is a substitute teacher for Morrill High School and Elementary. They have four sons: Branden works for Western Sugar as an agriculturalist, Matthew farms and has a trucking and custom spraying business, and John works on the farm. The three older sons graduated from Morrill Schools and Kaden is attending Morrill as an 8th grader. We have two granddaughters, Henlee (2) and Leah(1).
Dick Burford married his wife, Deborah, over 30 years ago. They ranch in the north east portion of the district and for many years Deb was a phlebotomist. They have two children: James who ranches and Leslie who works for UNL Extension out of Scottsbluff; both children graduated from Morrill High School in the classes of 2011 and 2012. They have one granddaughter, Kinzley (1).
Dick’s primary passion, that led him to serve the school board, was children. He especially cares about those who really need assistance for something better. “I am especially passionate about FFA; I would love to provide an animal to a student without access to one, maybe a bucket calf. I was appointed to the school board in 2006 when a seat was vacated. Fred Cawiezel and Virgil Ritz were both on the board at that time, and they approached me and told me they would be recommending me, to the rest of the board, to fill the vacancy. I continued on the board to stay through the various times of turmoil and to help search for quality superintendents.
Jim’s primary passions have been to create and develop. “To leave something better than when I found it. I have tried to accomplish this thru family, farmland, raising crops, and serving on boards. I decided to run for school board because I felt I had something to offer the community and I wanted to serve. I felt while serving on the board I could use the corporate management training I received thru my work experience prior to returning back to farm. I also had a vested interest with 4 boys and as a landowner to be subject to decisions being made by the board. I enjoyed the responsibility and being part of excellent boards and working with great board members throughout the 16 years.”
Jim chose not the run for reelection this past year, “mainly because I have full confidence in the current board and administration to continue moving the district forward. In addition, I believe in term limits. It’s healthy for a community to elect new people on the board with a fresh ideas, and different perspectives.”
Dick’s reason for not running again this year was quite similar, “they need someone with a new perspective on the board now, especially with the knowledge necessary because of the technology rich environment that we have and the technological expertise that students come to school with today.”
Jim and Dick reflected on the challenges the boards faced during their tenure and focused their conversations on these two:
1)Declining enrollment 2004-2014
2)The 2010-2011 financial office mismanagement was definitely the low of our time on the board.
During these years, the board considered that one our biggest challenges was losing kids to other districts. The school ran budget deficits as we tried to continue to offer the same educational opportunities with declining state aid. Due to declining enrollment, we considered school consolidation with Mitchell. This involved many months of community and joint meetings to iron out all of the details with patrons excited and angry alike. The consolidation failed when Mitchell voted not to consolidate at the final vote. We saw a big decrease in student numbers for a year or two after as many of the patrons in favor of consolidation left the district. Our board determined to focus on thinking differently; we needed to move from a precarious place, to a place of stability and then growth.
There were multiple accounting practice breakdowns in the district office, causing the IRS to file a lien against the district. Thanks to the leadership of Fred Cawiezel and interim Superintendent, Bill Hawkinson, the district recovered and prevailed.
As the baton has passed from two very experienced board members to two new board members, Dick offered the following advice. “Don’t be afraid to innovate! The addition of FFA, the infrastructure and hundreds of devices to support the 1:1 initiative, and building an Early Childhood Facility were innovations with a huge payoff in rebuilding confidence in the district.” Jim added, “What I’ve learned thru these challenges is to use each one as an opportunity to improve the school. As an example; when the consolidation fell through, the board made it its mission to not only keep the doors open but make the district better. We had to differentiate our district to not only keep our students, but attract students from other districts. In addition, as a word of advice, when making a tough decision just do what’s best for kids and you won’t be wrong.”
During these 16 years, the list of Board accomplishments is long and each one significant. The parents, students, staff and patrons of the district owe a debt of gratitude for all of the accomplishments during this time. Jim and Dick played significant roles in bringing these improvements to fruition.
Agriculture Education Program
The board had an opportunity to add agriculture classes to the curriculum and offer FFA as an activity. At the time, only one other school in the area offered FFA. We felt the program would help differentiate and change the perception of MPS. Focusing our kids on what we are good at in Morrill, which is Agriculture. Thanks to our advisors Becca Cox and Krystal Wilkie, the program is a great success.
The board also purchased a 3.4-acre property just east of the football field, with the vision of building an agriculture education complex. It is wonderful to see this property beginning to get ‘legs’ and moving forward.
In 2015, the board made a commitment to be the most technology advanced district in the panhandle.
We were first in the area to go 1:1, student to device, we also added a 3-D Virtual Computing lab and 3-D printer. The board made huge investments in infrastructure, personnel, and devices to be certain our students would not be left behind in the technological world.
Replaced outdated curriculum in efforts to increase state testing scores: Science, Math, ELA.
We implemented new ACT Prep courses, and prioritized ACT Preparation for 10th – 12th graders.
District paid ACT exams (5x/student): money would no longer be a limitation to the number of times students could take the exam.
District paying tuition for college level courses at WNCC and EWC, allowing all juniors and seniors the opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.
Implemented Ron Clark teacher training and strategies to increase student engagement and improve student performance.
Nine of the last ten years, the district has increased its net financial position. Today the district is financially stable due to the accuracy and work of Stacy Rodriguez and planning of Joe Sherwood.
The Early Childhood Building: The board felt the district could attract young families to Morrill and keep preschool age kids from leaving, if we provided a daycare and preschool. The facility is near capacity! It has helped keep enrollment steady and better prepare students for kindergarten.
Moved the football field and bleachers to the High School sports complex, built a concession stand with bathrooms, and installed sidewalks and ADA accessible bleachers for the visitors.
Built a Wrestling/Weight room facility.
Replaced bleachers in both gyms, improving the visual appeal and school spirit.
Added a steel building around the cafeteria walk-ins to improve safety and visual appeal.
Added a Pride Bus to the fleet, replaced our oldest two buses with a 2019 bus via a State EPA Grant, and replaced two activity vans and the Drivers Education Vehicle.
The QZAB funded improvements at the high school:
Energy efficient windows
Energy efficient lighting
Removal of all asbestos from the classroom buildings
Build Activities Programs
As a board, we placed great emphasis to improve all the activities at Morrill Public Schools. To build school spirit, improve public perception, and reduce the number of athletes leaving the district.
Josh Guerue has been instrumental in achieving our activity goals.
Looking forward, Jim and Dick agreed that Morrill Public Schools are set to continue to prevail and achieve. Our enrollment has stabilized, we have built back financial stability, we have many excellent teachers and staff, and our administration is headed in the right direction. We should continue to focus on enrollment growth and see to completion the agriculture education complex.
The current school board, the district administration, teachers, staff, parents, students and patrons wish to express our thanks and gratitude to these two men and their families for the countless hours invested, the headaches and sleepless nights endured by them and their wives, and for the number of times they were distracted or absent from their families, serving the district for so many years. Your sacrificial leadership was noticed, valued, and appreciated!