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Willmar Schools again begin process of cutting from budget

WILLMAR -- Willmar school administrators will be meeting every week in the coming months to discuss potential budget cuts.

It's all part of a process the Willmar School Board started Monday by passing a resolution ordering administrators to make recommendations for reducing the district's budget.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard offered a range of $1.4 million to $3 million for the reductions.

The final amount of cuts will be determin-ed by a number of factors, in-cluding how the state handles its budget deficit problem. Minnesota's public schools receive more than three-quarters of their funding from the state.

Administrators have begun preliminary discussions but won't make recommendations to the board for some time, he said.

Kjergaard offered a timeline for the discussions, leading to final adoption of the recommendations on March 8.

Last year, he said, board members said they appreciated having the decisions made in March. An early decision also gives people who may lose their jobs more time to make plans, Kjergaard said.

The resolution adopted Monday lists job cuts and program reductions as possible avenues, along with fee increases and bigger class sizes.

The first board discussion of the proposed cuts will come at the work session on Jan. 25, according to a timeline Kjergaard provided. The discussion will continue at both board meetings in February.

The district cut nearly $3 million from the budget before the current school year started. That included reorganizing elementary and middle schools and closing two buildings.

"It's going to be harder this time," Kjergaard said. "It will cut deeper, hurt more."

Administrators will recommend a variety of reductions that total more than the board needs to cut, in order that board members will have some choice in the final decision, Kjergaard said.

In a budget-related issue, Darlene Schroeder of the local group Music Matters provided an update on the group's activities. The group encourages people to support public education and has raised money to benefit music programs in the Willmar schools, she said.

The group is affiliated with the Southwest Initiative Foundation and accepts grant applications on behalf of the music programs. So far, it has granted $18,250 and plans to raise money for next year.

"We plan to continue to support music across the board," she said.

The grants for this year cut down on teachers traveling between schools and allowed the district to continue to offer instrument lessons for students from elementary through senior high, she said.

The district has reached a tentative contract agreement with its teachers, said Bill Busta, director of human resources. Teachers met to review the tentative agreement on Monday and will vote Friday morning.

The contract includes a 1 percent salary and benefit increase in the first year and a 1.9 percent increase in the second year. The increase includes the cost of insurance and other benefits. The agreement also allows people who earn post-graduate credits to move up on the salary scale.

"They've made a commitment to get an advanced degree," and the district will continue to encourage that, Busta said.

The negotiations were long and difficult, given the district's tight finances, he said. "I'm thankful to them for recognizing the financial situation."

Kjergaard said the kindergarten wing at Roosevelt Elementary is due to be completed this week.

The moisture content in the cement floors is still higher than it should be, and tile and carpeting thus can't be installed yet. Instead, the floors will be cleaned and sealed so that they can be used, he said. Teachers will be able to use room-size rugs in their rooms until the floor coverings can be installed.

"That's really the only piece we won't have done," he said. "It will be open, and it will be very nice, and it will be fine."

Teachers will be moving next week, and "we will be ready to go, they assure me, for students on Jan. 4."

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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