Willmar accepts gift to fund AP chemistry class, discusses guidelines for future gifts
WILLMAR -- A $10,000 grant from the Affiliated Community Health Foundation will allow Willmar Senior High to offer an Advanced Placement chemistry class next year.
But the School Board's 4-1 split vote to accept the gift was part of a broader discussion Monday evening about the use of private donations to help fund public schools.
The board discussed the issue at length Monday and will do so again at a workshop after a regular meeting June 22.
A group called Music Matters also stepped up at the School Board meeting to offer its help in raising money to help the district.
The group also offered help in promoting another operating levy if the board decided to seek one in the fall.
The foundation for Affiliated Community Medical Centers, based in Willmar, offered the donation to keep the chemistry class going. The donation will cover the cost of a teacher taking on an "overload," which is a heavier class schedule than most teachers have.
High School Principal Rob Anderson told the board that the teacher taking the overload would have no preparation time during the day and would teach the entire day -- except for a 28-minute lunch break -- for 18 weeks.
The $10,000 in extra pay compensates the teacher for the extra class during the day and for the prep work that would have to be done outside regular school hours.
Board member Wayne Lenzmeier, who cast the lone vote against accepting the gift, said he was worried that the board would be setting a precedent that could lead to donors who demanded a say in how their money was spent.
"I think you're opening a door that you may not be able to close," he said.
Another concern was approving special funding for a class so small that the district might not ordinarily offer it. The class now has seven students registered, with another five interested in taking it after studying basic chemistry over the summer.
Board member Mike Carlson asked if the school had a minimum number of students required to go ahead with a class.
There isn't a written policy, Anderson said. In general, he said, he likes to see a minimum number in the low 20s. However, putting together the schedule for 1,300 students is complicated, and some sections are larger or smaller than the target, he added.
Carlson said he was worried about approving a schedule that would leave a teacher with no prep time for half the school year. Targeted donations also worry him, he said.
"I wish someone would say they want to pay for an ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, because that's what we need," he said.
Board member Sandi Unger argued for the other side. "If people want to help, I'm all for it," she said. She said she believed Anderson would not give the overload schedule to a teacher who couldn't handle it.
"I think we're all about providing opportunities for our students," she said.
When board members asked Anderson what he thought, he said without hesitation, "I recommend you accept the gift."
The students have other alternatives, including going to Ridgewater College to take the chemistry class, but "these students want to stay at Willmar High School," he said. And the foundation has worked with the high school before, funding its wellness center.
Darlene Schroeder spoke to the board on behalf of Music Matters. The group is concerned about maintaining music programs in the schools but also hopes to find ways to help the district as a whole.
The group believes public education should be paid for through taxes, she said, but they also understand that state funding is inadequate. The group is looking for ways to encourage people to make donations to the district's general fund.
Willmar will not be the only district to face these issues as state education funding shrinks, said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.
If community groups or individuals want to make donations, he said, he'd like to have some guidelines for talking to people who contact his office
Unger noted that the district's foundation accepts donations that are earmarked for defined purposes, and the district has received grants that are intended for specific programs.
"How do you distinguish between a grant and a gift that is being offered," she asked. "I just don't understand why we wouldn't want to do something like this."
Board Chairman Brad Schmidt said he did not have a problem accepting private donations, but he was concerned about the lack of guidelines. "We need to set parameters," he said.
Another concern is the ability to sustain programs that are originally funded by grants, Carlson said.
Lenzmeier said he'd rather see donations go to the Willmar Public Schools Foundation. However, "that takes the board out of the picture," said board member Eric Roberts.
The foundation usually funds extras like field trips, registration fees and some special equipment, Schmidt said.
Kjergaard said he and administrators would research policies at other districts before the board's workshop in June.