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Strong support for school levy renewal in Willmar, Minn.

Voters are seen Tuesday at the polling station at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. The district's levy question passed on a nearly 4-to-1 margin. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Willmar School District voters overwhelmingly approved a renewal of an operating levy for the district on Tuesday.

The vote was 3,944 in favor and 1,076 against the renewal of the $498.49-per-pupil levy. The total is unofficial until the results are canvassed by the School Board.

Of the 5,020 people who voted, 78.6 percent cast ballots in favor of the levy. About one-third of the district's eligible voters cast ballots.

The levy has been in place for the past 10 years, and Tuesday's vote will continue it for another nine years.

The levy raises about $2.2 million from local taxpayers and should help the district avoid drastic budget cuts in the near future.

Without the levy, school officials had said they might have to make drastic cuts. Potential cuts included the loss of all-day, everyday kindergarten and cuts to electives in secondary classes.

It was a party atmosphere in the board room at the Willmar Education and Arts Center after the vote totals were announced. A group of School Board members, administrators, teachers and people from the community were on hand to wait for results, a total of about 25 people.

The results came in shortly after 9 p.m., delivered by Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.

The group erupted as he read the results.

Liz Van Der Bill, the leader of the pro-levy group Education Matters, had been jokingly predicting a vote of 4,000 in favor and 1,000 against. She beamed and laughed when the final total was close to that.

"Thank you to all of the Willmar School District voters for supporting our kids," she said.

Teachers Mary Sawatzky and Sue Thell were also pleased. Sawatzky said she had had some sleepless nights before the election.

"The students are the winners, so we can still offer the same opportunities next year," Thell said. "I was hoping for a good majority; this is better than a good majority."

Sawatzky, local president for the Education Minnesota teachers union, said that she was pleased with the vote. "Willmar will continue to strive to deliver to out students," she said.

Kjergaard said he had been hopeful that the levy would win, but he had not expected a 4-to-1 margin of victory.

"It's a really big election for the students in this district," he said. Board Chairman Wayne Lenzmeier said he was happy for the students in the district.

The district may still face some budget reductions in the spring, he said, "but it's not going to be at the level it would have been."

After operating levy elections in three of the four years he's been in the district, Kjergaard said, he's hoping to be done with them for a while.

"I didn't go to college to run elections," he said. "I went to college to run educational organizations."

A lack of funding at the state level means that funding issues aren't over for Minnesota's public schools, Kjergaard said. "The state doesn't have the willpower or the gumption to solve their own problems, so they pass them down to us."

The levy was opposed by a group calling itself Willmar-StudentsFirst.

Kjergaard said he had never dealt with an opposition group in his career.

"My observation would be it gave our supporters an added impetus," he said.

"I'm just really pleased," Kjergaard said. "The whole community worked hard -- the teaching staff, the board members, the administration -- to try and get our story out about our needs, and I would like to thank our community for believing in us."

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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