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Willmar School District starts laying plans for excess levy referendum later in the year

WILLMAR -- Voters in the Willmar School District will likely be asked again this fall to pass a measure for increased funding.

A final decision on going ahead with the levy referendum will take place in July. In the meantime, school officials and the Willmar School Board are already starting to plan how the question will be framed on the ballot.

The consensus at a meeting of the School Board on Monday was that a referendum is necessary and that the school district should seek voter authorization for an extra $898 per pupil-unit -- almost twice the amount that's allowed under the district's current excess levy, which expires in another two years.

"We're going to have to put something on the table that's at least sustainable for the next few years," said board member Wayne Lenzmeier.

Residents of the school district "have to understand the state isn't going to help us out," he said.

Upwards of $1.5 million in budget cuts earlier this year helped the school district achieve a conservative but balanced budget and adequate cash reserves for 2010-11. But in 2012, when the current excess levy runs out, another round of dire cuts -- potentially as much as $3 million -- will become necessary to prevent the district's fund balance from severely eroding and possibly sinking into statutory operating debt.

If that happens, it will be "catastrophic," said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.

The current excess levy allows the district to collect an additional $498 per pupil-unit. The proposed new excess levy would replace the current one, and the new levy would authorize an extra $898 per pupil-unit, generating $1.7 million in revenue the district would not otherwise have.

Board members had the option of keeping the same per-pupil amount on the ballot or raising it to $698, but they agreed Monday to ask voters for more than this.

"If we're going to ask for extra funding, let's make it worthwhile," said Brad Schmidt, chairman of the board.

"We can see the things that are going to happen and we need to take responsibility," agreed Mike Reynolds.

Kjergaard called it "the right decision."

According to preliminary numbers, the excess levy would result in an additional $122 in property taxes for a home in the Willmar School District valued at $100,000, an additional $213 for a home valued at $175,000 and $244 for a $200,000 home. The projected tax increases are gross amounts and don't include reductions for eligible property owners through Minnesota's property tax refund program.

Based on feedback from a series of community meetings, the district will stick to one question on the referendum ballot instead of splitting the issue into two questions, a tactic that was used in 2008 with mixed results.

"They all said, 'One question. Don't do two again,'" Kjergaard said.

He told the board that he and his staff will be working in upcoming weeks to begin putting the legal language together for a ballot question that can be brought before the board next month. Planning also has begun for an informational campaign, Kjergaard said.

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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