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Dr. Jerry Kjergaard, superintendent of the Willmar School District, conducts an informational meeting Wednesday on the district's proposed levy question that will go before voters during next month's election. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Kjergaard: Decade of children to benefit from renewal of levy

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If the Willmar operating levy is renewed, a decade of children will benefit from it, Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said Wednesday.

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Kjergaard spoke during an informational meeting about the levy at noon Wednesday at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. The district is seeking the renewal of a $498.49 per pupil levy for nine years.

The levy has been in place for the past 10 years and will expire at the end of the year.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 8. Voting will be at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

About a dozen people attended in addition to most members of the School Board and some school staff. Several asked questions or made comments about what the levy meant to them.

Willmar Mayor Frank Yanish attended the meeting and stayed afterward to chat with Kjergaard.

"People need to think long and hard before voting no," because of what the district means to the community, Yanish said.

Kjergaard provided information about the levy and talked about its impact.

If the levy renewal fails, school officials have estimated that more than $3 million in cuts might have to be made, jeopardizing a number of school programs.

Things that could be on the chopping block are all-day, everyday kindergarten, Advanced Placement classes, electives and student activities. Activity participation fees could also be increased.

Passing the levy is a community decision, Kjergaard said. If it doesn't pass, it will mean that the community has decided to change the face of its school district.

Kjergaard said he hoped that would not be the case, because many of the district's services are important for students and families.

Full-time kindergarten is an advantage for young parents, he said, because it saves them money on daycare while giving their children a strong start in school.

Advanced Placement classes help families save money by giving students a chance to earn college credits, he said.

"We want to make activities accessible to all the kids that want to participate," he said. "Kids who are in activities do better in school."

One of the activities that could be in danger is the school district's 76-year-old orchestra program, he said. To many people, "that's not an extra," he said. "Fine arts is a big deal in Willmar, and it should be."

As a regional center, Willmar needs to have the most challenging high school programs in the area and offer more opportunities, Kjergaard said.

"This district has a big impact on this community," he said. "People need to understand that this is a big economic machine that helps the rest of the community."

The school district has 4,000 students and more than 700 employees. It puts $30 million or more into the area's economy each year through salaries and other expenditures, Kjergaard said.

One of the first questions was from John Sullivan, who has been affiliated with a group opposing the levy. Sullivan said he was not against the levy but was concerned that there would be just one polling place on Election Day.

Kjergaard said the district has to pay the full cost of the election and is trying to save money by operating one polling place. The New London-Spicer School District will also be operating one polling place for its technology levy election.

Several business people spoke at the meeting, saying a strong school district was important when they recruit professional employees.

"One of the first questions we get is, 'How's the school district,'" said Tony Amon, a physician at Family Practice Medical Center.

Willmar resident Mary Lou Arne asked about the state borrowing state aid from schools without paying it back. Kjergaard said the state is withholding 40 percent of this year's state with the promise to send that money in the next fiscal year. "They don't have a plan to pay us back," 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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