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Chamber of Commerce backs Willmar Schools' levy renewal

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The Willmar Lakes Area Ch-amber of Commerce has en-dorsed passage of the Willmar School District's operating levy renewal. The chamber's Board of Directors voted unanimously to support the levy in the Nov. 8 referendum.

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The district is asking to renew a local levy of $498.49 per pupil. It is expiring at the end of the year after being in effect for 10 years.

The fact that the levy renewal will not increase property taxes was a factor in the chamber board's decision, chamber president Ken Warner said.

Before making a decision, the chamber surveyed its members, and the board sought a recommendation from its Public Policy Committee.

According to a chamber news release, a clear majority of the membership voted in favor of supporting the levy, and the committee supported it unanimously.

Salaries and local spending by the school district roll over three to five times before leaving the community, Warner said. The district has a general fund budget of about $40 million. When food service, community education and other separate funds are included, the number is closer to $50 million.

"That's why I think it's important for the business community to get more involved in this issue," he said. "It's going to help our community to continue to grow and prosper."

Having a healthy school district is important in recruiting new employees to the area and in retaining them, Warner said.

School officials have said major budget cuts will be needed if the levy renewal fails. The cuts would hit academic programs, class sizes and activities.

Warner said the chamber doesn't want to see that happen. "It has an impact on the community, just the basic overall quality of life we have here."

The chamber's news release included some education reform goals for the future. "After Nov. 8, we want to say that's when the real work starts," Warner said.

The goals include some local ones -- that the district's projected expenditures will not exceed revenues and that only as a last resort would the district move to a four-day school week.

Other goals are broader and would likely require changes in state law.

They include improving teacher evaluations and eliminating the seniority system of teacher layoffs; supporting the reinstatement of the state's graduation test for high school graduates; and supporting the elimination of unfunded mandates from the state.

The Legislature did vote this year to implement a new system of teacher evaluation and ordered that student achievement be a part of the evaluation. However, it runs afoul of one of the other goals by being a new unfunded mandate.

Warner said the chamber plans to appoint a task force to work with the school district on education reform. He said he hopes to see discussions with school administration, staff and unions to develop ideas for reform.

"I think there's enough interest on all sides to get something done," he said.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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