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Enrollment was up in Willmar in 2009; however, reserves dipped some $400,000

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School District saw an uptick in its enrollment last year, but its undesignated fund balance shrank.

The School Board received the fiscal year 2009 audit at its meeting Monday afternoon. The fiscal year ended on June 30.

Auditor Paul Harvego of Conway, Deuth and Schmiesing told the board that the district is in relatively good financial condition.

The district's fund balance of about $4 million is similar to the state average, Harvego said. The fund balance is $400,000 less than a year ago.

The fund balance has dipped in the past few years, he said, but "based on these economic times, I think you're doing very well."

The district's enrollment returned to 2007 levels in 2009, an average of 4,076 students a day. It had dipped to 4,039 in 2008. This happened at a time when many districts in the state have seen steady declines in enrollment, he said.

Harvego also offered information about how Willmar's spending stacks up with other districts around the state.

Willmar spent less than the state average on administration and more than the state average on classroom instruction, he said.

The district's expenses came within 1 percent of the budgeted amount in a general fund of about $40 million. Harvego praised the management of Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington and the district staff.

The district's employees "don't spend money just because it's in the budget," he said.

Harvego could tell the board members where the district's revenue came from last year -- more than 85 percent from the state, 4 percent from federal sources, 7 percent from local property taxes and 3 percent from other sources.

However, he couldn't tell them as much about the revenue breakdown in coming years, because of uncertainty about state funding.

The state kept money it would otherwise have sent to the schools and replaced it with federal economic stimulus funding. In Willmar's case, the stimulus money is about $2.5 million.

The percentage of revenue from federal sources will increase for a time, but no one knows if the state will be able to increase its funding again to cover the one-time stimulus money.

The state has also shift 27 percent of this year's state aid into the following fiscal year. The shift allows the state to cut its expenses for the 2010 fiscal year by putting that off until 2011. However, there is no guarantee in state law that the education money will be paid in fiscal year 2011.

Board member Sandi Unger asked what districts will do if they don't get that funding.

"I don't think any district I know of could sustain that," Harvego said. The loss of more than a quarter of their state aid could force most districts in the state into statutory operating debt, he said. Districts classified as being in SOD have budget deficits that exceed the limits set by the state.

Harvego also agreed with board member Wayne Lenzmeier that the stimulus money is a concern.

"If they don't reinstate that, we're in trouble," Lenzmeier said.

No one knows at this point what will happen with these issues, Harvego said, but he said he did find it hard to believe the state would knowingly plunge most of its school districts into debt.

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

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