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Willmar School Board accepts retirement notice from Leedom

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has accepted the retirement notice of Superintendent Kathy Leedom.

The board voted unanimously on Monday to accept Leedom's resignation, effective July 31, 2008. She announced last week her intention to resign and retire.

Also at Monday's meeting, the board approved the final property tax levy amount for 2008.

The board usually acts on personnel matters with one motion, but on Monday, board member Dion Warne recommended that they act separately on Leedom's retirement.

"I would like to give you congratulations on a job well done, and it's well deserved," said board member Brad Schmidt.

Board Chairman Mike Carlson thanked Leedom "for the grace with which you've served" and for her commitment to the district.

"It is just such an honor and a privilege to have served the Willmar Public Schools in this capacity," Leedom said as she thanked the board.

Then, she reminded them that she still had more than a half year left on the job and a lot of work left to do. She said she had notified them of their retirement early in the school year so they would have time to conduct a thorough search for a new superintendent.

The board scheduled a workshop for 4 to 6 p.m. Dec. 17 with a representative of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

In her retirement letter to the board, she said she had some mixed emotions about retiring after 33 years in education. She praised the people she had worked with, including "child centered" board members.

"Thank you for permitting me to serve the Willmar Public Schools," she wrote. "I appreciate very much the opportunity I have had to be a part of an excellent school system that is so devoted to our children and young people. ... I trust that together we have succeeded in making the district better and stronger each and every year."

Leedom, 56, has led the district through some challenging times in her seven years at the helm. She came to Willmar as assistant superintendent in July 1994 and was named superintendent in August 2000.

Just a few weeks later, auditors discovered that an accounting error had caused revenue in the 1998-99 school year to be overstated.

That error led the district into what the state calls statutory operating debt, meaning the deficit in its operating budget exceeded state limits. Willmar's debt was $1.164 million.

After voters approved a local operating levy and the board made a painful $1.8 million in budget cuts, the district moved out of debt in 2002, a year ahead of the schedule set out in its budget plan.

State officials at the time praised Leedom and other school officials for developing a workable plan and sticking to it. The district has since built a general fund balance of more than $5 million and has won numerous awards for its financial management.

In 2004, architects doing a study of maintenance needs in the district's facilities discovered serious problems in the roof drainage system at the Senior High School, which was 10 years old at the time. Leedom at the time called the building the "crown jewel" of the district's facilities.

Further study indicated that the building was designed properly but was not built according to the design. A four-summer repair project, costing more than $1 million, will be finished in 2008. The district is in arbitration to try to recover the cost of the repairs from those who built the building.

The property tax levy the board certified on Monday is the same as the $5.6 million preliminary levy adopted in September, said Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington.

The levy reflects a decrease of $47,475, or less than 1 percent. The state Department of Education dictates what the district's levy will be each year.

For 2008, the district's levy for the general fund and its local voter-approved levy will be increasing. The state adjusts the ratio of state aids to local property taxes as property values rise, and Willmar's property values have gone up in recent years.

The debt service levy will be decreased. The state requires districts to levy 105 percent of their actual debt payments in case some taxes go uncollected. Over time, the excess amount levied can built up a reserve in the fund, and then the state requires the district to use some of the reserve.