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Offers for Willmar, Minn., school building may prevent its demolition

WILLMAR -- The threat to tear down Lincoln Elementary School appears to have spurred some interest among potential buyers.

The Willmar School Board set a deadline of 4:30 p.m. Friday to receive offers on the building. As many as three offers are anticipated. Realtor Doug Fenstra jok-ed at the board meeting Monday that he hadn't e-pected that demolition would turn out to be a marketing tool.

In September, the board discussed tearing down the building, which has been vacant and for sale for several years. In all that time, there was no offer for the building, and the district spent about $30,000 a year to heat the empty building.

After news spread that the building might be torn down, Fenstra said, he had been "inundated" with interest in the building.

A Missouri company made an offer to buy the building for $7,000. Fenstra said he had received another offer recently, but details of that offer were not made public at the meeting Monday. A group of four people at the meeting said they had discussed the building with Fenstra but had not submitted a formal offer yet.

So far, none of the offers had contingencies attached, Fenstra said.

Board members sought guidance from Fenstra and Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard on how they should proceed.

Kjergaard suggested tabling the decision because of the new interest in the building. However, their next formal meeting isn't until Nov. 19, and board members did not want to wait that long to make a final decision.

Fenstra suggested offering prospective buyers a chance to submit final offers.

The board voted to accept the highest bid without contingencies submitted by 4:30 p.m. Friday.

Board Chairman Nathan Streed said he hoped the public would understand that selling the building, even for a seemingly low price, would be beneficial to the district. The district was preparing to spend $250,000 to tear down the building, he said.

The Willmar School District spends more on regular instruction than districts of a similar size in the state but less than the statewide average, according to a report from the district's auditors.

In administrative costs, the district also spends less than the statewide average but slightly more than similar districts.

Paul Harvego of Conway, Deuth and Schmiesing of Willmar presented the annual audit report at Monday's School Board meeting.

The audit found no serious problems with the district's finances, he said. "The staff is very good to work with, and they can be commended on the work they do," he added.

The audit of fiscal year 2012, which ended June 30, indicated that the district is in good financial shape, Harvego said. Enrollment increased a bit last year. Salaries and benefits decreased due to the end of federal stimulus funds.

Like all districts, Willmar depends on the state of Minnesota for most of its funding, he said. Nearly 82 percent of the district's general fund revenue, about $35 million, came from state sources. About 10 percent came from local property taxes, with the rest coming from other sources, like the federal government.

The district ended the year with a $6.6 million undesignated general fund balance, about 15 percent of annual expenditures. The reserve is used to maintain cash flow, between the large property tax and state aid payments received during the year. It's also available to help the district with emergency needs.

Harvego's report listed the district's spending in several categories, comparing per pupil spending to averages for districts of 2,200 to 4,449 students. Willmar's enrollment is about 4,000 students, placing it among the larger districts in the comparison group.

In administration, Willmar spends $745 per pupil, compared to $738 in similar districts and $811 statewide.

Board member Mike Reynolds said he often hears from the public that the district spends too much on administration, so it was good to see that local costs are in line with other schools.

In regular instruction, Willmar's $4,453 per student is higher than similar districts but about $100 less per student than the statewide average. The same holds true for special education, where Willmar's $1,840 per student is a few dollars more than similar districts and a few dollars less than statewide.

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

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