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Meeting turns to informal discussion on levy

Jackie Miller, from left, and Cathy Idso discuss the proposed school levy with Willmar Public Schools Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard Tuesday at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- With just two members of the public on hand, an informational meeting on the Willmar School District operating levy became an informal discussion.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard abandoned his prepared presentation and sat down with Jackie Miller and Cathy Idso to talk about the district's levy request.

On Nov. 2, voters will be asked to revoke an existing levy of $498.49 per pupil-unit and replace it with an $898.49 levy for the next 10 years.

Kjergaard will host two more informational meetings, titled "A Community Investment," at noon Oct. 7 and at 7 p.m. Oct. 14. The meetings are open to the public and will be held in the boardroom on the first floor of the Willmar Education and Arts Center, 611 Fifth St. S.W.

"The big thing is, the state's broke," Kjergaard said to open the discussion with the two women. They were joined by School Board member Wayne Lenzmeier and Chairman Brad Schmidt and by Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington.

Public schools haven't gotten any additional money for two years, and it's possible they won't get any more for the next two years, Kjergaard said. In fact, there are rumors that the state could cut funding by $500 per pupil in each of the next two years.

The board voted to seek the new levy in the hope that the additional $400 per pupil per year would help the district avoid major budget cuts for at least a couple years, Kjergaard said.

The board has set priorities for the money. About 80 percent will be used to update curriculum and technology, preserve current programs and restore some programs that were cut in recent years.

About 20 percent will be used to build up the district's general fund balance to be used as a rainy day fund. "We thought that was just good stewardship," he said.

The women nodded as they spoke with Kjergaard. Both are working with a citizens' committee promoting the levy. Idso said the information she picked up at the meeting would help her when she works on a phone bank for the levy next month.

Miller said she was shocked and worried that no one else came to the meeting.

"I'm trying to get the information in front of them as many ways as possible," Kjergaard said.

A brochure from the school district to voters will be mailed later this week, and two more public meetings are scheduled. He's also been speaking to service clubs and other community groups.

The school district is seeking the levy to deal with stagnant state revenue, rising costs and increasing state and federal mandates over the past decade.

The district has cut $6.5 million from its $40 million operating budget since 2005, including about $4 million in the past two years.

Numerous teachers, classroom paraprofessionals and other staff members have lost their jobs or had their work hours reduced. Academic and extracurricular programs have been affected, and the district has raised fees for sports and activities.

The proposed levy would raise about $4.2 million a year. The current $498.49 levy raises about $2.4 million. A separate $201.51 levy adopted in 2008 raises $930,000 a year.

The $498.49 levy will expire in another year. The board decided to seek a new levy this year, so if it isn't approved, they can try again next year. If the district lost the $498.49 levy entirely, it would leave a $2.4 million annual gap in the budget.

In general, the new levy would increase school property taxes about $10 a month for each $100,000 of property value. The operating levy would apply only to the house, garage and one acre on agricultural land, and it would not apply to cabins or other seasonal recreational property.

The district has information about the levy on its website,, including links to YouTube videos by School Board members and to Kjergaard's PowerPoint presentation on the levy. Property owners can use a calculator there to see what the levy's impact will 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

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