WILLMAR -- Discussions will begin soon on the future of Willmar Public Schools, with an estimated $1.6 million in budget cuts needed at the end of the year.
Voters approved the first part of a two-part operating levy in Tuesday's election. That allows the district to avoid much larger cuts but the School Board will still face some difficult budget decisions in the spring.
A new board member will join the board in January, too, as former board member Mike Reynolds will succeed board member Shawn Mueske, who lost his bid for re-election Tuesday. Incumbents Sandi Unger, Eric Roberts and Wayne Lenz-meier will return. Challenger Don Thorpe came in sixth in the voting.
In the final unofficial tally for School Board, the totals were: Unger, 6,515 votes; Reynolds, 5,935 votes; Roberts, 5,795 votes; Lenzmeier, 5,384 votes; Mueske, 4,997 votes; and Thorpe 3,515 votes.
The top four candidates will serve four-year terms on the board.
Final, unofficial vote totals for the operating levy were 6,696 in favor and 5,068 against on the question of a new property tax levy of $201.51 per student. On a second question on a levy of $374.36, vote totals were 5,620 in favor and 6,036 against.
Statewide, voters approved a little more than half of the school levies proposed in the state, according to information from the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Willmar School Board Chairman Mike Carlson said Wednesday that he was grateful that the first question had passed, and he praised the work of the citizens committee that campaigned for the operating levy.
"Given the economic question right now, it's understandable that folks wanted an opportunity to support the school, but they needed to watch their own pocketbooks, too," Carlson said.
If neither question had passed, the school district could have had to make $2.5 million in cuts next spring. With the influx of new funding from the levy question that was approved, the needed cuts are now estimated at $1.6 million.
The School Board and the administration will probably start to discuss the upcoming cuts soon, Carlson said. "Everything is going to get looked at. ... I don't think this is something we can wait on."
The passage of just one of the questions is "a bittersweet thing," Carlson said. "It's an indication of how difficult it is to fund education in Minnesota now."
But the passage of more than half of the levies statewide is a sign that voters see their schools "as an asset that needs to be funded," Carlson said.
Carlson said Mueske would be missed on the School Board, and he congratulated Reynolds on his victory.
"I think Shawn Mueske is an outstanding School Board member," Carlson said. "He was a big part of how we operated in the last five years, and his perspective is going to be missed."
Reynolds' previous experience should be helpful to him, because he will be joining the board with the major budget cuts looming, he said.
"This isn't going to be an easy time," Carlson said. "It's going to be felt across the district."