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School Board members answer questions about budget reductions

Willmar School Board member Dion Warne, left, answers questions Thursday during the first of a series of Community Connection meetings presented by the Child Guide Program. Warne and School Board chairman Brad Schmidt, right, fielded questions on the district's plans to make budget reductions. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Willmar School Board members said Thursday that they would like to be able to develop a long-term budget plan, but it's very difficult when funding levels change from year to year.

Board Chairman Brad Schmidt and board member Dion Warne, a former chairman, spoke about school budgets at the Community Connection series at Kennedy Elementary School. About 30 people from the community attended. The series will feature four more noon-hour presentations about community issues in March, April and May. They are sponsored by the Child Guide Program.

The program is part of Willmar Community Education and Recreation. Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard had been the scheduled speaker, but he was ill Thursday, so Warne and Schmidt filled in.

The board members offered a brief explanation of school budgets and then answered questions.

The Willmar School District is in the process of making about $2 million in budget reductions this spring, in preparation for the 2010-11 school year. The board has already decided to continue all-day, everyday kindergarten for the next year, they said, and it will likely spend $200,000 or more from reserves to soften the blow of the budget cuts.

The district will retain reserves of more than $2 million, which has been a longstanding policy of the board.

Warne said board members do not see the reserve as a savings account, but it provides ready cash in case of an emergency, like a school boiler needing replacement. "It's prudent for us to have cash available," he said.

The budget reduction process is difficult for board members and school officials, because every cut affects a child's education, Warne added.

Schmidt said the board finds it difficult to develop a long-range plan. Schools depend on the state for the majority of their funding, he said, and funding levels are uncertain from one year to the next.

"We just have to go year by year by year and do the best job we can," he said.

Questions covered a wide range of topics, including four-day school weeks and a possible operating levy referendum in the fall.

One man asked how the schools would meet the needs of special needs students after budget cuts. Warne said the schools provide what a child's individual education plan requires, and they work hard to help students who are learning English.

"We have a real desire to educate every kid that comes through our doors," he said. In the future, it will be to everyone's advantage "to have them be contributing members of society," he added.

When someone asked if they were considering asking voters to approve a new operating levy this fall, the board members said it has been discussed. The board has not made a decision about a levy yet.

Other local governments can raise taxes without voter approval, but schools can't, Warne said.

Schmidt said a new levy could be a way to maintain or restore programs.

The board members said the new federal program Race to the Top might offer some additional funding, but it's not known yet if Minnesota will receive funding. Willmar's teachers would also need to sign on to the state's Q-Comp merit pay plan, something they have already voted down once.

A four-day week is not on the table for this year, they said.

"We've already said it will be on the docket next year, at least for discussion," Schmidt said.

The community impact of having 4,000 students out of school one day each week will be a consideration. "We're going to want to involve the whole community" in the discussion, he said.

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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