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Superintendents, teachers give legislators an earful

Willmar Schools Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard makes a point Tuesday while discussing education funding with Democratic state Reps. Andrew Falk, of Murdock, and Rep. Nora Slawik, of Maplewood, pictured below. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR -- Area school superintendents, teachers and school board members gave their analysis of state funding for K-12 education during a roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon in Willmar.

Very little of what the school officials had to say to Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, and Rep. Nora Slawik, DFL-Maplewood, was positive, and there were plenty of unanswered questions. "When will we have the hard conversation about what we are going to do?" asked BBE Superintendent Matt Bullard.

The Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa district will need to borrow $3 million to pay its bills this school year thanks to delayed state funding payments.

The shift was part of the compromise that ended the state government shutdown this summer. The cost for BBE, Bullard said, is at least $62,000 in interest payments, more than the salary of a teacher.

The recent legislative sessions have started with the same expectations, that the state will not borrow money from schools, but the end result is the same -- more borrowing from schools and only slight funding increases, Bullard said.

The funding shift means state government owes school districts $3.4 billion, with no plans in place to pay it back. Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the district will have to borrow to cover the gap and told the legislators who really will pay the cost.

"You balanced the budget on the backs of kids," Kjergaard said. "The Minnesota Miracle is dead and buried. We are out here just trying to survive."

The Willmar district has cut $10 million in the last 10 years and $4 million in Kjergaard's four-year tenure as superintendent and may need to cut another estimated $3.2 million if an operating levy is not renewed. The district's voters will be asked this fall to approve renewing the $498.49-per-student levy.

The district, with about a 40 percent minority population, is much more like a metro school district than a rural district and cannot educate students as needed because of the lack of funding, he said.

"What we have is not really what we want," Kjergaard said. "Our kids deserve better. I don't have enough funding to provide all of the basics for my kids."

Greg Schmidt, superintendent at MACCRAY, lined up the budget cuts his district has made -- $800,000 in his first year and $300,000 each year in his second and third years in leadership -- plus going to a four-day school week to save on expenses. All those cuts together mean that the district may or may not have to borrow to cover for the state funding shift, he said.

Schmidt spoke of the uncertainty created in a small community -- Clara City, Maynard and Raymond are the towns that make up that district -- when teachers are put on unrequested leave and school administrators and school board members are unable to plan ahead and know their financial condition when putting annual budgets together.

School staff members told the legislators all about doing more with less, and students having less opportunity to get help and participate in afterschool activities because of the funding cuts.

Annette Tiffany, Willmar Middle School social worker, used to work with 600 students, but budget cuts and school building closures have increased the number of students she works with to 900 students.

"The district leadership has cut all the fat," said Amy Sack, Middle School math teacher. "Now, they are into the meat."

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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