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It's been a busy first year of cuts, restructuring for Willmar Schools Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard

Jerry Kjergaard had planned to spend his first year in Willmar getting a feel for the school district he had moved here to run. It didn't work out that way.

When Kjergaard joined the district on July 1, 2008, he knew he would be trying to pass an operating levy in the November election. After that, he hoped to take some time to get acquainted with the district.

"I wanted to work at making it a better place," Kjergaard said. "It wasn't bad; I wanted to build on what was here."

Instead, Kjergaard spent much of his first year as superintendent developing a new organizational structure that led to closing two buildings and adding on to another. The restructuring was part of a plan to cut $2.7 million from the district's budget before this school year starts. More than half the district's students and teachers will start the coming school year in a different building.

A year ago, "nobody would have thought that was going to happen, least of all me," Kjergaard said recently.

"I didn't think we would have to cut as much out of the budget when I came here," he said. "But who would have thought the economy would go as far south as it did."

Kjergaard said he also hadn't expected to have to move so fast.

Kjergaard said he was impressed with the school staff's work in preparing for all the moving done this summer.

Teachers and custodians did a good job organizing the move, and some teachers even volunteered to come in to paint rooms.

The moving work continues. Several days ago the Willmar Community Education and Recreation moved into its new quarters in the former Jefferson Elementary School.

"We know there's something we will have forgotten," he said, because it's almost inevitable in a project of this size.

A month into the school year, he said, parents, kids and teachers will have worked everything out, and "It's going to be OK."

The district should be able to save money on transportation and to increase efficiency.

"My mandate was to protect the district, to save money and protect the quality of the district," he said.

The district has been moving "at full steam" for the past year as administrators and staff prepared for the reorganization, he said, and now he hopes to be able to move on to other things.

"I hope to do more of the stuff I find enjoyable, like educational planning," he said. After such a major shift in the district's structure, "I want a year when we just do educational stuff," he said.

"I got into this field because I like kids," he said.

In the last school year he read to the students in most of the kindergarten classrooms and in a number of elementary classes. "It's one of the things I like to do," he said, and he plans to continue "until they get tired of me."

He hopes to work with the staff this year to develop ways to measure how effective they are in teaching their students and to develop a plan to help all students make academic progress.

"I think overall the teachers in this district do a dynamite job with kids," Kjergaard said, but they face many challenges. Chief among them is the "cycle of poverty" that ensnares many students and their families.

Despite the upheaval of his first year here, Kjergaard is glad he came to Willmar from Waconia.

"Willmar's a really great place to be," he said. "It's kind of the hidden jewel of Minnesota. ... There's challenges, but what the heck, there's challenges everyplace."

Kjergaard said he likes the fact that most of the people who live in Willmar work in Willmar, too. "They have a vested interest in the community and a sense of commitment to it," he said.

After working in a suburban area where many residents commuted to jobs elsewhere, he has enjoyed seeing Willmar's interest in its school district.

"I'm amazed at all the people that are committed to my kids," he said.

"We have quality programs, committed staff," he said. "You can't ask for more than that, except more money ... more consistent funding."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340