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If Willmar's levies fail, classes will have up to 5 more kids

WILLMAR -- Willmar school officials have been reluctant to give specifics of the cuts that could come if voters don't approve an operating levy referend-um next week.

However, Superintendent Jerry Kje-rgaard did offer some idea of the impact if the School Board has to cut $2.5 million from the district budget next spring.

Kjergaard talked about a possible increase in class sizes at the district's third public information meeting on the levy Tuesday evening.

Three members of the public attended the meeting, along with four School Board members.

The district is asking voters to approve a two-part operating levy to preserve current programs.

The first question asks for $201.51 per student, to bring the district's current operating levy up to $700 per student. The second question asks for another $374.36.

Each levy individually would bring additional funding to the district, but cuts would still be made next year. If both levies are approved, school officials have said they will be able to avoid making budget cuts for two years.

Without the additional funding, Kjergaard estimated on Tuesday that class sizes could increase by three to five students per section. He has also said that as many as one in seven district employees would be affected through a loss of work hours or through layoff.

Local levies used to be sought to pay for "extras," Kjergaard said, but that has changed. Because state funding has not kept up with inflation, nearly 90 percent of the districts in the state have operating levies to help pay day-to-day expenses, he said.

Kjergaard, who joined the district on July 1, said he didn't want to be the superintendent who had to cut $2.5 million from the $42 million budget, but "I will, because it's my job."

Because three-quarters of the district's budget is spent on salaries and benefits, any major cuts are likely to involve staff, he said. "I can't turn lights off or turn copy machines off to save two and a half million dollars."

The three men who attended the meeting asked some questions about where the cuts might come.

One, Neil Thomas of Willmar, asked for more information about how the two questions would affect his taxes. The numbers provided by the district don't seem to add up, he said, and it made him feel like "someone's trying to pull a fast one."

Kjergaard smiled and answered, "No, we're not smart enough."

Kjergaard and Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington explained the effect state aid would have on a new levy.

The state provides aid for districts with levies up to $700. Willmar's current levy is $498.49 per student, and the amount of the first question would add $201.51, allowing the district to receive the maximum state aid available. The state would pay about 37 percent of the $201.51.

If the second question passes but the first doesn't, state aid will be available on the first $201.51 of that levy, but local taxpayers will pay the remaining amount without the help of state aid.

If both questions pass, the taxpayers will pay the full amount of question 2 without additional state aid.

The total tax increase if both questions are approved is more than the total of the increases listed for the individual questions. That's because the same amount of state aid is included in the calculations for each separate question, but can be included just once in the combined total.

After the meeting, Thomas said he had come to the meeting because "it's going to cost me some money, and I want to find out what that's all about."

Thomas, whose granddaughter attends Willmar Senior High, said he felt his questions had been answered, and the meeting "probably made me lean more toward voting for it."