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Cuts a given if voters not on board

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WILLMAR -- A citizen group promoting yes votes on the two-part Willmar Public Schools operating levy referendum calls the levies an investment in the community's future.

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"We're talking about an investment strategy that can pay dividends year after year," Greg Hilding said Friday at a Chamber Connection gathering.

Hilding is a member of the Vote-Yes-Twice Committee and president of Bremer Bank in Willmar.

A stable school district is important to the health of a community and its businesses, Hilding said.

He called the operating levy questions "a significant strategy for stabilizing home values and property values."

In a short presentation to the more than 30 people gathered at the offices of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, Hilding urged the group to vote yes on both questions -- "once for the kids; and the second time for our businesses."

The Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the passage of both questions.

The district is asking voters to approve a levy of $201.51 per student in the first question and another levy of $374.36 per student in the second question. The tax increase for an average value home in the district would be about $15 a month.

The two levies combined are expected to be enough to ward off major budget cuts for a time and maintain the programs the district currently offers. Without the levies, the school district estimates that budget cuts of at least $2.5 million could be needed next spring.

The district has already cut about $2.5 million from its budgets over the past few years, resulting in layoffs and hours reductions affecting more than 40 employees. Class sizes increased this school year as a result of the recent cuts.

Hilding and Nathan Streed, another committee member, urged the group to talk to coworkers and others to make sure people have accurate information about the referendum.

"They're not talking about cutting extra stuff," Streed said. The next cuts would be aimed at core curriculum areas, he added.

School officials estimate that one in seven of the district's 700 employees could be affected through layoffs, reductions in hours or other job changes.

When people ask if the levies can pass, "as business leaders, we need to say, 'It has to,'" Hilding said. "We can't be having people graduate unprepared for this global economy."

Tori Leitch, a parent and member of the committee, said the district already is struggling with class sizes and supplies. Some classes don't have enough math books to allow every child to take a book home, she said.

Chamber President Ken Warner said people who are thinking of moving to Willmar often come to the chamber office seeking information. One of the first questions is "How's the school system," he said.

"A lot of hard cuts" were made when the district was in debt in 2001, Warner said, and many of those programs were never fully restored.

"A lot of people need to talk to their coworkers," he said.

Leitch said the quality of the school district was a consideration when her family moved to Willmar seven years ago, and it is something potential employees ask about at her husband's business.

"The issue of preparedness is vital to us at the college as well," said Ridgewater College President Douglas Allen. "It makes a huge difference to us when kids come to us prepared." The college faculty has appreciated the well-prepared students coming from the Willmar schools, he said.

After the meeting, chamber members were invited to pick up lawn signs to place in front of their businesses and homes.

People at the meeting said they had appreciated the information they received. Lisa Haase of Willmar Family Dentistry said she had not been aware that some classes had a shortage of textbooks.

Earl Huber of US Bank said more people are talking about the economy lately, but he expects that they will take more notice of the school levy issue as the election approaches. He said some people may feel the district is seeking a lot of money, "but it's not even a dollar a day."

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