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Facing $1.6M in cuts, Willmar drops high school French program

WILLMAR -- The French program will be dropped from the Willmar Senior High schedule after this school year.

The Willmar School Board approved the change at its meeting Monday. It's the first of numerous budget reductions the board expects to adopt before the school year ends.

The board also gave final approval to its $6.6 million property tax levy for 2009. The levy will increase $1 million over the 2008 levy -- about 18 percent -- and about $700,000 of that can be attributed to the operating levy voters approved in November.

In a written report to the board, Senior High Principal Rob Anderson said that enrollment in French classes had declined 60 percent since 2006. The school will continue to offer Spanish and Chinese classes.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said school officials are exploring options to continue offering French classes online or through an interactive TV class. The move will cause the reduction of a teaching position equivalent to two-thirds of a full-time job.

The board is facing at least $1.6 million in budget cuts, which would normally be made in the spring. Because of a looming state budget deficit, the board should probably consider increasing the amount of budget cuts to as much as $2.4 million, Kjergaard said.

The elimination of the French program was approved now, before the school begins printing 2009-10 registration materials in January.

"This would have been on the reduction list," Kjergaard said.

The district's administrators plan to have a preliminary proposal for budget cuts ready for the board at its Feb. 9 meeting, according to a timeline Kjergaard proposed at the meeting.

Kjergaard said he had received 100 budget cutting suggestions from staff members and 20 from community members who filled out a form on the district's Web site.

"Some of them, some serious thought went into them," he added, and they will be studied.

Board members asked to see examples of the district's financial planning model using updated assumptions. The district had planned to receive 2 percent increases from the state in each of the next two years. Now, business managers and superintendents around the state are expecting to see no increase from the state.

Board Chairman Mike Carlson said he also wanted to see what the budget outlook would be if the board reduced its general fund balance from 6 percent to 5 percent or 4 percent.

"I'm not advocating it; I'm just saying it might be something we want to look at," he said.

Board member Sandi Unger, who was on the board through the district's serious budget deficit eight years ago, said she would object to changing the board's policy of having a 6 percent fund balance.

After the board meeting, the board met with state Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar.

The legislators said all areas of the state budget are open to scrutiny as the state deals a shortfall of more than $400 million before the fiscal year ends on June 30 and a $4.8 billion deficit over the following two years.

The difference this year over a deficit of similar size five years ago is that the state's economy was growing at that time, Gimse said. "That's no longer the case."

Legislative leaders will be meeting in the coming weeks to try to arrive at a solution for the current fiscal year. If legislators can't reach agreement soon, the governor could go ahead and make the cuts himself, they said.

The upcoming legislative session could lay the groundwork for some systemic changes in the way the state pays for public schools, Juhnke said. However, it's unlikely they would be adopted that quickly. It's more likely they would be studied in 2009 and possibly adopted in 2010.

One of those changes could be the new "Minnesota Miracle," a new funding mechanism some legislators have proposed.