WILLMAR -- The Willmar business community took the first step Thursday toward deciding whether to endorse the Willmar School District operating levy.
Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard spoke to members of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce Thursday afternoon at The Oaks in Willmar.
Kjergaard explained why the district will ask the voters to rescind an existing levy and adopt a new one that is $400 larger, raising property taxes on homes and businesses about $10 a month for each $100,000 in value.
The new levy would add $1.77 million in revenue to the district's annual budget of about $40 million.
Questions from chamber members addressed school employee salaries and benefits, the idea of performance-based pay and the impact of Willmar's minority community.
The chamber's Public Policy Committee will survey members this month, and directors will decide whether to support the levy on Sept. 23.
More than 80 districts around the state will ask their voters for operating levies on Nov. 2.
Willmar and other school districts used to ask voters to approve such levies to raise local property taxes to pay for special programs, Kjergaard said. Now, the majority of districts in the state have operating levies, and they used them to provide basic services.
Several factors contribute to the funding problems faced by Minnesota's public schools. Costs have continued to climb while state funding has been stagnant in the past decade. In rural schools, enrollment has declined, resulting in less per-pupil state aid. State and federal mandates on schools have remained in place during the funding squeeze and have increased in some cases.
Kjergaard said the district would likely spend about 80 percent of the levy proceeds on maintain educational programs and the staff that provides them. Some previous cuts might be restored, too.
The other 20 percent would be dedicated to maintaining the district's general fund reserves, to ensure future financial stability.
The reserve is important, he said, because "we don't know what the state's going to do" to address a budget deficit currently projected to be $5.8 billion in the next two-year budget.
After the presentation, chamber members had several questions.
One business owner said he did support the school district but said school salaries and benefits, which are much higher than those in the private sector, made it difficult for some people to support the levy.
"We live with the rules we have," Kjergaard said, and it would be up to the Legislature to change the laws that govern pensions and collective bargaining.
When it comes to merit pay for teachers, Kjergaard said, the current Q-Comp program gets all the funding for merit pay from local property taxes.
"If they want us to do it, they should pay for it," he said. An operating levy would give him more discretion in how to use a tax increase, he added.
Willmar Mayor Les Heitke asked questions about the impact of the district's minority and immigrant population.
"If every minority kid in this district walked out," the district would be 25 percent smaller, about the size of the Hutchinson district, he said.
The loss of that many students would cause a wide reduction in the opportunities the district can offer, he said.