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Willmar Schools to ask voters for $400 levy increase

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has voted to place an $898.49-per-pupil-unit operating levy on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

The next step is up to the district's voters, who will be asked to revoke an existing $498.49 levy and replace it with the larger one for the next 10 years.

The existing levy will not be revoked unless the new levy is approved.

Board members said at their meeting Monday that they hope the new levy would help them avoid making budget cuts for at least a few years.

The state took over the majority of funding for public schools and decreased local property taxes in 2001. Willmar now receives three-quarters of its revenue from state aid.

Since 2001, the state has provided no funding increases in some years and very small increases in other years. However, inflation has continued to affect expenses, and there has been no letup in the requirements state and federal governments place on public schools.

The combination of stagnant revenue and growing expenses has contributed to spending cuts and increased fees in many Minnesota school districts.

The Willmar district has cut a total of $6.5 million from its $40 million operating budget since 2005.

The budget cuts have been part of the solution in dealing with the budget problem, and the increased revenue from a levy would be another part, said Board Chairman Brad Schmidt. "We're offering an opportunity to at least stave that off for a little while."

Board members said Monday that they haven't heard a lot of feedback yet from the public, but what they have heard has been positive.

Board member Wayne Lenzmeier said one man told him he thought the district was asking for an appropriate amount of money.

Parents in the district would like to see a few years without cutbacks and increased fees, said board member Mike Reynolds.

"There's always been intense pride in our school district ... and we have to do our best to maintain that," he added.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard has met with community groups about a possible levy. "That's what I hear," he said. "They don't want to cut anymore."

The groups have also suggested having just one ballot question, he said. When the district put two levy questions on the ballot in 2008, only one of them passed.

According to a news release from the district, the proposed levy would raise $4.2 million a year. The current $498.49 levy raises about $2.4 million.

A second $201.51 levy adopted in 2008 raises $930,000 a year.

The $498.49 levy will expire in another year. Board members decided to seek a new levy this year, so if it fails they can try again in another year. If the district lost the levy entirely, it would leave a $2.4 million hole in the budget.

If the new levy is adopted, the district's total levy would be $1,100 per pupil-unit. Other levies in that range in the area include MACCRAY at $1,062.36, Renville County West at $1,203.97 and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City at $1,075.

If the new levy is approved, taxes would increase $122 a year on a $100,000 house and $183 a year on a $150,000 house. Information provided by the district indicates that the tax increases would be about $10 a month for each $100,000 in property value.

The new operating levy would apply only to the house, garage and one acre on agricultural land, and it would not apply to seasonal cabins.

Later in the summer, the district will post a calculator on its website so that property owners can see what the levy's impact would be on their property.

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

(320) 214-4340