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Willmar school officials continue to weigh budget options

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WILLMAR -- The Willmar School District is six classrooms short of being able to operate two K-5 elementary schools in the district.

Since the district can't afford to add six rooms onto a school, it needs to look at realistic plans for consolidating its operation, Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said at Monday's School Board meeting.

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Closing two small schools and shifting grades and programs in the remaining buildings is one of the main proposals in a package of possible budget cuts presented to the School Board last month. Board members spent about an hour discussing the cuts on Monday.

The board will be deciding in about a month how to slash $2.5 million from the 2009-2010 school year budget, a cut of about 6 percent. Some of the cuts would have been needed because of declining enrollment, but others are needed because state aid has not kept up with inflation for the past decade.

The board will make its choices from a list of nearly $3 million in possible cuts, which was developed by Kjergaard and his administrative team.

Two buildings, Lincoln Elementary and Washington Learning Center, would be closed under the proposal. Lincoln is a K-3 school, and Washington is home to community education, early childhood and adult basic education programs.

Jefferson Elementary, the smallest of the remaining schools, would become a kindergarten center. Kennedy and Roosevelt would become schools for grades 1-5. The Junior High, now a 7-8 school, would become a middle school with grades 6-8.

Other items on the list include an increase in caseloads for special education teachers, delays in spending on technology and curriculum and increases in class sizes across the district.

Class sizes, curriculum and technology purchases were the first concerns raised by board members. However, it was the effect of the school closings and the shifting of programs to other buildings that drew the most discussion.

Board members said when they first reviewed the proposed cuts that they wanted to hear from the public, and they apparently have. They frequently referred to comments they'd heard during the discussion.

In an interview after the meeting, Chairman Brad Schmidt said he gets e-mail comments every day about the budget. Board member Wayne Lenzmeier said many of the comments come with suggestions, which he appreciated.

Bathrooms are a big concern for kindergarten teachers, board members said, because many of the rooms in Jefferson do not have them. The district will spend about $60,000 this summer adding sinks in all the classrooms.

Jefferson and Lincoln Principal Beckie Simenson said some stalls can be added to the existing bathrooms at Jefferson. Kindergarteners who are in the building currently are able to walk independently to the bathroom, she said.

Other concerns were about what to do with the programs located at Washington. The current plan is to move them to the current kindergarten wing in Kennedy. However, parking would be a problem there, both for families with young children and for adults attending classes there.

If the Kennedy and Roosevelt buildings had more room, they could both be made K-5 schools, and the Washington programs could move to Jefferson. However, Kjergaard said that wouldn't work, regardless of where the Washington programs are moved, because the district has about 150 too many K-5 students.

Board members asked about the economic stimulus plan now before Congress, which includes school construction funding. Kjergaard said that funding may not be included in the final bill and couldn't be counted on.

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