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Budgetary issues take toll on the Willmar Schools' levy plans

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- The lack of a state budget is affecting the Willmar School District's ability to plan for its operating levy referendum this fall.

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The Willmar School Board discussed its options for a Nov. 8 referendum at Monday's meeting. The levy will seek to at least replace an expiring local levy of $498.49 per pupil.

The board will probably hold a workshop session in the next month to discuss plans for the levy. A date for the meeting will be chosen later.

Kjergaard said he has not been able to get information about how a levy would affect local property taxes, and it won't be available until a state budget is in place.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature have been unable to reach agreement on a new two-year budget for the state.

A new state budget is likely to affect property taxes and state education funding formulas, but at this point no one can provide details.

The board will have to make a decision by Aug. 26 on how much to ask for in this year's referendum, Kjergaard said. He'd prefer to make the decision sooner, he added.

School districts usually can get information about levy impact on property taxes soon after the Legislature adjourns, Kjergaard said, but that isn't possible this year.

"People want to know what the cost is, and we can't tell them," he said.

The district's $498.49 per pupil operating levy is set to expire after this year. If the district doesn't replace that levy, it would lose $2.3 million a year, about 6 percent, from its general fund revenue.

Last year, the district asked voters to replace the levy and add another $400 per pupil. That effort failed with 51 percent voting against it and 49 percent voting in favor.

Because the levy funding is so important to the district, the board decided right away that it would approach the voters again this year.

Because the school district will have the only issue on the general election ballot this fall, the board can decide how it wants to conduct the election, Kjergaard said.

Among the decisions to be made: how much money to ask for and for how long, whether to split the referendum ballot into two questions, how many polling places to operate, whether to use optical scan or hand-counted ballots.

Kjergaard said the number of polling places is up to the board, and it can range anywhere from one polling place in every precinct to just one in Willmar for the whole district. The more precincts open, the more it will cost, he said, because the district will be paying the full cost of election judges.

In other business Monday, the board approved contracts for capital improvements on the Senior High and Kennedy Elementary parking lots.

Both contracts went to Duininck Inc. of Prinsburg, which was the low bidder at $372,000 for the Senior High project and $236,000 for the Kennedy lot.

On the Senior High project to replace the bus lot behind the school, the bids were twice the engineer's estimates or higher. The board approved the project anyway because of the urgent need to repair the lot.

"We don't want to skimp on quality," said board member Mike Reynolds, because the lot has so much bus traffic on it.

Board member Eric Roberts asked if the project could be done in smaller pieces.

Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington said the Senior High parking lot improvements are already done in stages because of their size. To split them up more could end up costing more, she added.

Harrington said she believed that the original estimate had been artificially low.

The Kennedy parking lot improvement contract came in less than the estimate, she said.

In several personnel-related moves, the board:

- Approved the appointment of Nathan Cox as the new principal of Roosevelt Elementary School. Cox has been the dean of students at the school for six years.

- Approved the layoff of eight employees in the non-certified staff. Seven of the employees had been paid with federal funding that is about to run out. The other was laid off because of student counts.

- Granted tenure to four teachers, as recommended by the administration.

- Voted to continue with Blue Cross Blue Shield as the district's health insurance carrier after seeking bids from other companies. Premiums are set to drop 5 percent for the next year.

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