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Hearings on school levy renewal proceedings set in Willmar, Minn.

WILLMAR -- The Willmar School Board has set the dates for two public information sessions about the proposed renewal of an expiring operating levy.

The sessions at noon Oct. 26 and at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 will be designed to provide information about school financing and the levy's impact on the district.

The election will be Nov. 8, with polls open at the Willmar Education and Arts Center from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard gave a preview of the talk at Monday's School Board meeting.

Also at the meeting, a spokeswoman for a local conservative organization called StudentsFirst announced that the group would be opposing the levy.

The board has proposed renewing a $498.49 per pupil operating levy which is expiring after 10 years. The renewed levy would last nine years. When added to an ongoing $201.51 levy, the district's total levy would stay at $700 per pupil if the levy passes. The state would provide equalization aid to cover about one-third of the cost to local taxpayers.

"This operating levy is vitally important to us," Kjergaard said as he delivered the presentation he had prepared for the public meetings.

Schools are the only government agencies that need to ask the voters for permission to raise local taxes, he said.

Kjergaard and board members lamented that situation. "It just seems to make us a target of any anti-tax group that's out there," said board member Sandi Unger.

Citizens who are upset about other levels of government "have the opportunity to take it out on the school district," added board member Nathan Streed.

Board member Linda Mathiasen said she was concerned that "a whole generation of children ... will pay the price."

In the past, operating levies were used for special programs. Now, 92 percent of the state's school districts have them, and they use funding for daily expenses, to supplement inadequate levels of state aid.

"Now, the problem is if you lose one, it totally devastates your district," Kjergaard said.

Money from the levy, about $1.5 million a year has "gone into every nook and cranny and contract and salary we pay," Kjergaard said. "Everything that we get is touched by these dollars."

Losing the levy renewal would be devastating to nearly every program in the district, he said. "There is no positive spin to put on a failure of this levy."

Kjergaard said he doesn't want to present a list of cuts that might be made if the levy doesn't pass. Also, he said he'd rather talk about what the district wants to maintain, like Advanced Placement courses at the high school and all day, everyday kindergarten.

The district academic opportunities exceed the state's minimum requirements, he said.

"As a regional center, people expect us to have a high quality program that meets the needs of all of our kids," he said. "That's what our community demands."

Linda Kacher of StudentsFirst told the board Monday that her group would be opposing the levy renewal. Kacher listed several reasons for the opposition. Kjergaard and board members refuted her points during the meeting.

Kacher's reasons included a perceived lack of support for legislative reform efforts this year, not finishing teacher negotiations before the levy vote and using only one polling place during the election.

Board members said they are frequently in contact with local legislators to share their views and also have a statewide association that lobbies for them at the State Capitol.

Teacher negotiations are in progress now, but they couldn't start in earnest until after the Legislature and governor had completed work on a new education bill. Because of the state shutdown, the education bill wasn't finished until late July.

The board discussed the polling place issue at length in July and August and decided a single polling place was the least expensive way to conduct the election. Since the school district has the only ballot issue this fall, it must pay the entire price of conducting an election. Willmar has used a single polling place in the past, and New London-Spicer is also using a single polling place for its technology levy vote this fall.

At the meeting the board adopted a resolution appointing 16 people to serve as election judges. They include judges to handle absentee ballots. The district has a link to the state's absentee ballot application on its website, Click on "2011 levy information here" to find the information.

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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