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Students may be slapped with higher athletic fees

In this Jan. 24 file photo, Willmar goalie Ben Letich is pictured during action against the Hutchinson Tigers at the Willmar Civic Center. In an effort to balance its budget, the Willmar School Board is looking at implementing a fee increase for students in grades 9-12 to participate in athletic programs. School officials are considering numerous options as they attempt to trim up to $3 million from the budget. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

WILLMAR -- A variety of alternatives are on the table now for the Willmar School District's changes in athletic participation fees.

A package of recent proposed budget cuts presented to the School Board included some revenue increases as well, including higher fees for students in grades 9-12.

On Monday, administrators presented several alternatives to the first proposal, which some board members and members of the public felt were too high.

The board is considering a package of nearly $3 million in proposed cuts. Board members plan to cut about $2.5 million from the budget for the 2009-2010 school year budget. Some of the cuts are a response to declining enrollment, but others are due to a lack of state aid over the past decade or more.

The decision on cuts will likely be made at the board's March 16 meeting. The meeting was moved from March 9 because some board members had scheduling conflicts.

Many school districts in the state are looking at cutting their budgets because of the state's budget deficit. Schools expect to see no increase in state aid for next year and to possibly see a reduction for next year. It's also possible they could lose state aid in the current year.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said there was no way to budget for a possible cut in state aid in this budget year, which ends on June 30. The district would have to use its budget reserves for that, he said.

Kjergaard told the board that they may want to cut more than $2.5 million, to give them a head start on the $1.4 million that may have to be cut from the budget a year from now.

The initial proposal athletic fee was to increase fees to $250 for each of the first two sports per student, with additional sports free. The family cap would have been increased to $700 a year. The move would have raised about $81,000.

The three new proposals would raise $46,000, $41,000 or $30,000 in new revenue, depending on the combination of new fees and family caps the board chooses. All would be increases over the current fees of $200 for the first sport and $100 for the second.

Board member Wayne Lenzmeier said he preferred the lowest of the alternatives. "I'm really sensitive to kids who won't be able to afford it," he said.

But Chairman Brad Schmidt said he could support the initial proposal, "in the context of this broad, overall program." When the district is looking at cutting teachers, class sizes and curriculum purchases, the district should find revenue where it can, he said.

To a group of about 25 teachers and administrators at the board meeting, board member Dion Warne said that he knew the board was being criticized for spending time discussing the athletic fees. "This is what people talk to us about," he said, but it doesn't mean the board isn't more concerned with class sizes and other academic cuts on the list.

The cuts include closing two of the district's smaller schools and reorganizing several others, as well as laying off a number of employees. The proposed list includes at least 40 positions throughout the district that would be eliminated or see hours reduced.

Special education teachers could have increased caseloads next year and some paraprofessionals could be laid off. However, the district will continue to follow individual education plans for all students, Kjergaard said.

When board members discussed cuts on the list that they wouldn't want to make, their comments were about keeping class sizes small in the early grades and about delays in curriculum and technology purchases.

One member of the public spoke to the board Monday about the pending cuts. Melanie Schultz, director of Head Start for Heartland Community Action Agency, asked the board to keep in mind the 67 children who attend Head Start programs at Lincoln and Washington schools, which are slated to be closed.

The program serves a total of 136 children in the Willmar School District and spends about $674,000 on the program in the district, she said.