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School Board cautiously optimistic

WILLMAR -- With a painful round of budget-cutting now complete, officials with Willmar Public Schools are voicing cautious optimism that the district won't face a similar situation this coming year.

Much will depend on the unknowns, said Pam Harrington, director of business and finance.

"There are so many changing variables," she said.

Projections for 2010-11 indicate, however, that funding and enrollment will remain relatively flat.

While it doesn't mean the district is safe from some more budget reductions in the months ahead, they may not be as severe as the $1.7 million worth of cutbacks adopted this spring for the coming school year, Harrington said.

"We may not have to make the reductions we made in the past this next year," she said.

Members of the Willmar School Board got their first look Monday at the preliminary budget for 2010-11. The budget shows projected total expenses of nearly $48.2 million for the next school year. Most of the spending, $40.8 million, is concentrated in the general fund.

Compared to the current fiscal year, total spending will be down next year, mainly because of the budget cutbacks that were enacted.

The expense of building an addition at Roosevelt Elementary School also will be off the books, now that the construction is done.

School district officials stuck to conservative figures as they put together the preliminary budget.

Any number of factors could still change in upcoming months, Harrington said.

It's possible that enrollment predictions could move up or down during the summer, she said. "There's always fluctuations."

District officials also don't know whether K-12 education funding might be unallotted at some point or whether the state will decide to delay aid payments to school districts. The potential impact of the economy and the state budget deficit also is unclear.

It's critical for school districts to try to anticipate and be prepared, Harrington said. "What districts need to do is adjust, adjust, adjust."

"I think we can't do anything but be extremely careful," said Brad Schmidt, chairman of the school board.

District officials are especially keeping their eyes on the fund balance. The unreserved fund balance is projected to increase from $3.8 million during the current fiscal year to $4.5 million in 2010-11. This would put it at 11.15 percent of total general fund expenditures, well within a comfortable cushion of reserves.

In 2012, however, an excess operating levy is scheduled to expire. If it isn't replaced, the district could face up to $3 million in budget cuts in order to keep its cash position from deeply eroding.

"It will be catastrophic for this district," Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said.

District officials and the board began laying plans Monday for a levy referendum this fall. A vote on whether to go ahead with the referendum will likely take place in July.

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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