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Candidates not all sold on levy

Seven candidates for Willmar School Board debate Tuesday in Willmar. Voters will elect three in the Nov. 2 election. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Candidates for the Willmar School Board agreed on several issues Tuesday during a candidate forum, but they came down 6-to-1 on the district's proposed operating levy.

Along with choosing three new board members on Tuesday, the district's voters will be asked to revoke an existing $498.49 per pupil levy and replace it with an $898.49 levy that would last for the next decade .

The additional $400 per pupil unit would be used to try to restore some programs that have been cut in recent years and to try to reduce class sizes.

Some of it would also be used to shore up the district's general fund balance and build financial stability.

The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and moderated by Bev Davis.

Dan Croonquist of Kandiyohi, Bill Fenske of Willmar, Jill Gould of Willmar, Linda Mathiasen of Willmar, Shawn Mueske of Willmar, Nathan Streed of Willmar and Don Thorpe of Kandiyohi are vying for three open seats on the board. Voters will be able to choose three candidates on the ballot on Tuesday.

An eighth candidate, Brian Bollig of Willmar, has withdrawn from the race. However, his name will still be on the ballots, as he withdrew after they were printed.

The candidates were not asked directly about the levy during the 90-minute forum, but they raised the issue frequently in answering other questions.

Thorpe raised the issue in his opening and closing statements, when he announced that he would be voting against the levy and urged others to do the same. Thorpe said he thought it was an unfair tax. He said he would rather see local officials "go after" state and federal elected officials to get them to provide adequate funding for education.

Candidates were asked what they would do to ensure Willmar students a world-class education, something listed in the district's mission statement when it was developed several years ago.

Fenske said he has been impressed with the opportunities available to his children in the Willmar schools and wants them to continue. "That's why the levy in front of us is so critically important," he said.

Croonquist said he thought the district had provided a world-class education for a long time. "I am very grateful for the education I received in Willmar," he said. "Willmar has a strong tradition of academic excellence."

Gould said she worries that the district's tight finances are leading to larger classes and a shortage of textbooks. "Our school district has definitely produced some bright shining stars in our community," she said, and her interest in continuing that has led her to spend the last two months advocating for the levy.

For Mathiasen, "my definition of world-class education is the opportunity to meet individual needs." She said she would like to see the district be more flexible and do more long-term planning to meet students' needs.

The district has worked to provide a world-class education for all students, but "if the levy doesn't pass, that starts to erode," said Mueske. He was on the School Board when the mission statement was developed.

For Streed, world-class would mean that students were exceeding the basic requirements for a diploma. He said he'd also like to see the public become more involved in the school system.

"We're already world-class," Thorpe said, but he added he'd like to see some programs restored.

On several issues, the candidates were in agreement across the board. All favored a zero-tolerance approach in dealing with bullying. All were opposed to a four-day school week.

The candidates also said they supported current discussions about cooperation among area school districts. They agreed that early childhood education is important for the district and for children entering kindergarten.

When asked if the district budget had room for more cuts, most of the candidates said it didn't.

Thorpe said he thought some things could be run more efficiently, but he wanted the state to provide more funding.

Croonquist called the current board "diligent" for the cuts made over the past decade. "I don't believe there's much left we can cut," he said. "That's why I'm in favor of the operating levy."

Fenske said the district has cut back about as far as it can, but difficult decisions could still be ahead. "We need to be fiscally responsible," he said.

"I do not believe there is any fat left to trim," Gould said. "Our teachers are feeling the ramifications." She talked about overcrowded science and welding classes at the high school and the loss of live animal experiments in the elementary schools.

Mathiasen said she believed the district's expenses should be closely aligned with its needs.

After a visit from a mobile science lab, Willmar teachers pulled disposable lab supplies out of the trash so they could reuse them, Mueske and Gould said.

"The problem is with a broken system of state funding," Mueske said. "There is no fat in this district."

Streed said his "ultimate fear" is that the levy won't pass. "The system might be broken, but we've got to take care of our own kids right here," he said.

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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