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Process of stripping nearly $3M from Willmar Schools' budget hits high gear

David Leapaldt, an architect with St. Cloud-based GLT Architects, addresses school officials and faculty Monday during the Willmar School Board meeting. School officials approved a plan to close two buildings and build a seven-room addition to another. Pictured behind Leapaldt are two drawings for the building proposal. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board took a series of steps Monday to change the look and operation of the district.

The board voted unanimously to cut $2.7 million from the district's operating budget for the 2009-10 school year, to close two buildings and to build a seven-room addition to Roosevelt Elementary.

The budget cuts are needed because enrollment has declined and state aid has not kept pace with inflation for years.

Willmar and many other school districts have cut items from their budgets repeated in the past few years to keep from falling into deficit spending.

The cuts the board approved on Monday will realign schools serving students in grades K-8 and move community education, early childhood and adult basic education programs.

The board's action will lead to larger class sizes throughout the district and higher fees for athletics and activities.

The amount cut from the budget was based on the assumption of receiving no increase in state aid, because of the state's $4.5 billion projected budget deficit. However, some legislative proposals might send the schools less state aid next year.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the final budget picture for schools won't be clear until the Legislature completes its work, which could be in late June. The next fiscal year for schools begins on July 1.

The board had discussed the package of cuts at three meetings over seven weeks. Comments during those meetings led to changes in the package. Proposed athletic fees were adjusted, and some teaching positions were added back. A new realignment plan was developed.

The School Board made the majority of the budget reductions in five separate motions, each dealing with a different aspect of the district.

District-wide cuts

The district-wide cuts include a variety of items and total $1.2 million.

The largest items in this list are $600,000 saved by putting off curriculum revision and purchases for two years and $214,000 saved by putting off technology purchases.

Kjergaard said both of those reductions are temporary and must be reinstated in the future.

Other cuts include cutting building supply budgets by 10 percent to save $80,000 and putting off some materials purchases.

Board member Wayne Lenzmeier said he had been asked why there were no administrative cuts in the list.

Kjergaard said the district cut its administrative team by 10 percent a year ago. The current administrators will be needed to oversee the work of closing two buildings, reconfiguring others and building an addition.

"There are still too many jobs out there that need to be done," he said, but there may be an administrative cut a year from now.

K-5 reorganization

Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools will each have students in grades K-5 next year, while Jefferson Elementary will become the new home of the Willmar Community Education and Recreation programs.

Lincoln Elementary and Washington Learning Center will close. Kindergarten students who will eventually attend Roosevelt may start the next school year at Lincoln while seven new kindergarten rooms at Roosevelt are built.

The savings in this reorganization are listed at $459,000. That includes cutting three classroom teachers, although they could be brought back if enrollment increases, Kjergaard said.

Board members asked about the planning for the elementary schools. Roosevelt Principal Patti Dols said they are developing a common set of offerings for both elementary schools.

Middle School

Kjergaard called the development of a middle school for grades 6-8 at the current junior high buildings is the linchpin of the district's restructuring plan. The district has not had a middle school before.

The move is expected to save $142,000 in the middle school. The cuts include 1.5 teaching positions. The school will also allow sports and activities to travel to one less event apiece. One coaching position will be eliminated in a number of sports, leaving the remaining coaches to supervise more students.

Some activities will be eliminated if student interest doesn't increase.

Board member Mike Reynolds asked to have the staff continue to review the fee structure for activities. The proposed fee if $75 each for the first three activities. Reynolds said he was concerned that the fee could keep some young people from participating.

"We want to make sure no one is turned away," Lenzmeier said.

Senior High

The Senior High budget changes include several staff changes and a number of increases in revenue. In all, the changes are expected to save $199,000 from the budget.

The board has already voted to eliminate the French program for lack of participation. In addition, one communications teaching position will be eliminated. A plan to eliminate a science teacher was scrapped at the board's suggestion.

Additional revenue will come from increasing athletic participation fees to $250 for the first sport and $175 for the second sport. A third sport is free. No family will pay more than $600 in athletic fees.

Fees for extracurricular activities will increase from $40 to $60 and will now include marching band. Parking fees will increase from $60 to $80.

Special education

A reduction in the special education department is expected to save the district about $700,000, although some of that could be offset by a reduction in state funding.

Kjergaard said he proposed the reduction to bring the district's caseloads in line with those at other districts. The Willmar Regional Treatment Center has also adjusted its needs for teachers at the Lakeview School, which serves the adolescent treatment unit.

The cuts include reducing 7.6 teaching positions and 19 paraprofessional positions.

If new students to the district have individual education plans that require more paraprofessionals or teachers, they will be hired, Kjergaard said.