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Operating levy point of debate for school officials decision likely at July 12 board meeting

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Operating levy point of debate for school officials decision likely at July 12 board meeting
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board will probably decide in July whether to ask voters to renew an operating levy that is about to expire.


The School Board discussed asking voters to revoke a levy that will expire next year and replace it with a new 10-year levy at a workshop meeting Monday.

It's likely that the board could ask voters to replace the expiring levy with a larger one to help cushion the district from potential cuts in state aid.

The district currently has operating levies totaling $700 per pupil unit. About 90 percent of Minnesota school districts have operating le-vies, which are used to supplement state aid and maintain programs in school districts.

State aid to schools has not kept up with inflation for more than a decade, and there have been no increases in some years. At the same time, the state and federal governments impose requirements on schools without providing full funding. Add inflation to the mix, and many school districts in the state are struggling to maintain services. Willmar has cut more than $4 million from its operating budgets for this year and next year. The budget is about $40 million a year. The cuts have included layoffs of teachers and staff, closing two buildings and increasing fees for sports and activities.

Willmar has two levies, $498.49 per pupil unit, which will expire after next year. A 201.51 levy was adopted two years ago and will expire after the 2019 fiscal year.

Pupil units are a way the state measures the amount of aid provided for children at different ages. A kindergarten student is 0.612 pupil unit. A secondary students is 1.3 units. Elementary students are 1.115 pupil units in grades 1-3 and 1.060 in grades 4-6.

Gary Olsen of Ehlers and Associates, the district's financial adviser, talked with the board about renewing the expiring levy this year.

Olsen presented several scenarios. The first would be to ask voters to replace the current levy with another $498.49 levy. That would leave local property taxes for the levy unchanged.

Olsen also showed the estimated impact of asking for $200 or $400 more.

If the levy were increased $200, to $698.49, property taxes could increase $61 a year on a $100,000 house and $122 a year on a $200,000.

A $400 increase would make the levy $898.49 and could lead to property tax increases of $122 on a $100,000 house and $244 on a $200,000 house.

Seasonal recreation properties do not pay school operating levies. Agricultural land is taxed on the value of the house, garage and one acre of land.

The state pays about one-third of an operating levy up to $700. Willmar two levies are currently at that limit. If the total of its levies in the future is higher than $700, local taxpayers will pay two-thirds of the cost up to $700 and the full cost beyond $700.

The state would pay about 23 percent of the levy if it was increased $200 and about 17 percent if the levy was increased $400.

Olsen also provided information for asking voters to approve an operating levy to the maximum allowed by the state.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he would not recommend doing that. That levy would be $1,365.65, an increase of $867.16.

Kjergaard said he thought the board needed to consider asking the voters to approve a higher levy for the next 10 years.

"In order for us to survive, we've got to take a serious look at the $898 figure," he said. "There are no guarantees; I think that will allow us to maintain what we have."

Board members asked Olsen to look at levy amounts in comparable school districts, including those of similar size and those with similar demographics.

After the workshop session, the board convened a special meeting to discuss an offer made to purchase the Washington Learning Center on Willmar Avenue. The meeting was closed to the public as allowed by state law, and the board took no action.

The Washington building closed a year ago in the district's reorganization of all of its school buildings except Willmar Senior High. It had formerly housed the Willmar Community Education and Recreation, which has moved to the Jefferson Learning Center on Kandiyohi Avenue.

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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