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Teacher layoffs are finalized by Willmar Board; officials review budget revision

Human Resources Director Bill Busta is pictured Monday during the School Board meeting. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has adopted a final list of tenured employees to be laid off, and a much-loved music teacher's name was not on the list.

The School Board voted at a special meeting on Monday to reduce the contracts of nine employees by 3 to 20 days and to lay off one full-time foreign language teacher, Christena Svoboda Ojeda.

The board also reviewed a revision to the 2009-10 budget, which indicated some positive news for the district's general fund balance.

Donations and staff reassignments helped save high school band director Bryan Mara and elementary/middle school orchestra teacher Lisa Zeller from being laid off, according to Human Resources Director Bill Busta.

On March 8, when the board began the two-step process of laying off tenured teachers, a number of high school students pleaded to save Mara's job. Students and adults from the Music Matters organization wore hand-decorated black T-shirts in support of the music program.

The layoffs were part of $1.75 million in budget cuts the board approved in March for the 2010-11 school year.

Board members praised the students for taking an interest in the process and for supporting their teacher. However, they said seniority dictated who would be laid off.

After the initial vote, a waiting period gave the tenured employees time to ask for a hearing, but none did. During that time, staff assignments for the coming year were changing, too, Busta said. The board approved a number of recalls of non-tenured staff members and transfers to new assignments at the meeting Monday.

Busta said donations to the district for the music program and staffing changes made it possible for the district to keep both music teachers.

"That's good news for those two and good news for the district," he said.

The employees who are losing days off their contracts already worked more days each year than the usual teacher contract, Busta said. Most of them will continue to have additional days in their contracts.

On the budget, the board reviewed a revision of the 2009-10 budget. Board members will vote to accept it at a future meeting. School budgets are set in June each year, before the fiscal year begins on July 1. However, those budgets are based on estimates.

As more information becomes available, districts revise their budgets to reflect actual numbers instead of estimates.

"I get to present a little bit of good news," Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington said.

The district's undesignated, unreserved fund balance is now expected to be $3.8 million at the end of the year, about $1.2 million more than originally estimated.

The revised budget lists general fund revenue of $42 million and expenditures of $41.6 million.

The additional reserve funds come from keeping a tight watch on spending in all areas of the district, she said, and a higher enrollment than expected, which brings in more per-pupil state aid.

Federal economic stimulus money also helped the district in the past year, Harrington said. However, that money will be available for just one more school year.

Harrington said school districts in the state are concerned about the amount of funding they are still waiting for this school year. In Willmar's case, the delayed funding is about $800,000 in stabilization aid and about $9 million in delayed state aid.

Other concerns are how the state will handle a budget deficit projected to be $5 billion or more and how that will affect schools.

"We can take a little bit of comfort in that our fund balance will be higher," she said. However, projections show that the fund balance could drop sharply in 2012 and 2013 if an operating levy is allowed to expire.

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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