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Education Matters wants Willmar, Minn., levy to pass to provide good future for students

Liz Van Der Bill, leader of Education Matters, addresses an audience Wednesday during the Noon Lions Club. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

When she attended Willmar High School, her teachers prepared her to be able to succeed later in life, Liz Van Der Bill said Wednesday. As leader of Education Matters in Willmar, Van Der Bill, of Willmar, is campaigning to extend a school operating levy that will provide the same preparation for children in the future. She spoke at the Willmar Noon Lions meeting Wednesday at the Willmar Community and Activity Center.

The Willmar School District is asking to extend an existing $498.49 per pupil operating levy which expires at year's end. If the referendum passes, the levy will be extended nine years.

It will not cause an increase in the school portion of local property taxes.

The results of the levy will be reflected in the final property tax levy adopted by the School Board.

If it fails, school officials have said they would have to cut about $3 million from the district budget. The loss of state aid tied to the levy would result in an actual loss of $581 per pupil, Van Der Bill said.

Budget cuts would be made in spring 2012 and would affect the district's programs for the 2012-13 school year.

School officials have said that cuts will be difficult after the past decade of budget cutting. Possible targets could be all-day, everyday kindergarten, block schedules at the Middle School and Senior High and a number of sports and activities.

Van Der Bill spoke to the Lions Club about the need she sees for the levy funding.

The levy is needed "to maintain reasonable kindergarten classes," she said. "The state does not pay for all-day, everyday kindergarten."

About two-thirds of all students in the nation attended all-day, everyday kindergarten programs, she said. Minnesota is one of 12 states which doesn't require it.

Many Minnesota districts, 207 of 341, offer all-day, everyday kindergarten using local funding, she said.

Van Der Bill said she attended a half-day kindergarten program, but she believes that type of program is no longer adequate.

Studies have shown that students in full-time kindergarten can help narrow achievement gaps and can lead to higher achievement in later grades.

Another goal for levy supporters is to maintain academic offerings in the district.

"When I was in high school I took AP classes," she said, and she found the experience helped her in college. "My teachers set me up to succeed."

The ACT scores of Willmar students recently beat state and national averages, she said, and levy supporters want to see the programs that helped produce those results remain intact.

"There's also an impact on business," Van Der Bill said.

With the retirement of millions of baby boomers on the horizon, "Who do you want to hire in your business," she asked.

Money invested in education now will save money in remedial classes, social service programs and in corrections, she said. "We can invest now or we can invest later."

Business recruitment could be affected, too, she said.

"If we as a community are not willing to invest in our community, how are we going to get businesses to invest here?" she said.

"It's very important that everybody gets out and votes yes for their district," she said. "We really need it to pass; our community needs it to pass."

Lions Club members asked several questions.

Clark Vollan asked Van Der Bill what she would believe the district can cut "fluff" without affecting programs. Many of the people working on the levy have been classroom volunteers, she said, and they have seen the impact of earlier cuts.

"There's not a lot left to cut," she said. "We're looking at cutting core things that we all took advantage of when we were in school."

Caryl Peterson, a former teacher, pointed out that teachers often use their own money to buy supplies for class projects, because supply budgets have been reduced.

Rolf Peterson asked about the district's decision to use one polling place for the levy election. He said he'd been told by school officials that using the full 19 polling places could have cost the district $57,000 to $60,000 for programming voting machines, election judge salaries and other expenses.

Van Der Bill said the decision was made to try to save money.

After the meeting, Van Der Bill said her group or more than 40 volunteers has handed out more than 1,200 signs to support the levy, and she continues to receive daily calls from people looking for more signs.

The group has set up tables to speak to parents at school conferences and has mailed literature to households in the district.

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

(320) 214-4340