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Willmar, Minn., School District says student numbers consistent, improving budget picture

In this undated photo, students board buses in the parking lot after finishing classes at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar. School officials say enrollment was fairly consistent to last year until mid-February where enrollment remained steady instead of declining which is normal for the middle of the school year. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- Willmar Public Schools' enrollment has been holding steady in the last half of the school year, and that could help the district's bottom line.

The district's relatively healthy general fund balance could be affected somewhat by efforts to maintain elementary teaching staffs.

For at least the past decade, enrollment has declined steadily beginning after the first of the year. This year, that decline never came, allowing the district to adjust its budget estimates to account for an average daily enrollment for the year is projected to 3,991, about 30 students more than earlier projections.

The Willmar School Board approved a revised 2011-12 budget at Monday's board meeting. School districts are required to adopt new budgets before their fiscal year begins on July 1. However, much information about grants and state aid is made available after that date, so it is common for a district to adopt a revised budget with updated figures.

The budget for this year was built on estimates, in particular. Because of the state shutdown last summer, no final state budget had been set by the time schools set their budgets.

The district's general fund revenue increased $634,000 over original estimates, to $41.8 million. General fund expenditures increased about $638,000, to $41.7 million. Both figures increased about 1.5 percent over the original budget.

The general fund provides funding for day-to-day operation of the school district. In all funds, including those that are self-supporting, the district projects revenues of $49.4 million and expenditures of $50.8 million. Other funds include debt service, food service and community education.

Some of the reasons for increased general fund revenue were grant funding and increased income from participation fees and admissions at events. Expenditures increase as grant funding is spent for its intended purposes. Other reasons for higher general fund expenditures included road assessments and some equipment needs.

When the fiscal year started, school districts were to receive 60 percent of their state aid in one year and 40 percent in the following year, Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington told board members. Because of favorable budget forecasts last winter, the state changed that percentage to 64.3 percent this year and 35.7 percent next year.

Harrington said the district received about $1.3 million in additional cash in this fiscal year because of the change in the state aid percentages. The district would have received that money eventually, but receiving it earlier aided in cash flow.

The steady enrollment figures could add about $267,000 to the district's state aid revenue, she said.

The district ended the last fiscal year with a general fund balance of 14.2 percent. The prediction now is that the district will have a 13.4 percent balance, about $5.7 million, at the end of the fiscal year, Harrington said.

"We're probably going to have to bite into that," said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.

Kjergaard said he had planned to cut four elementary teachers in the next school year but he now plans to keep the teaching staffs at the same level. The teachers will be needed to maintain class sizes, he said.

Board Chairman Nathan Streed asked Kjergaard to provide more information at a future meeting about how the reserve funds will be used.

Streed and other board members talked about revisiting the district's current policy of maintaining a 6 percent of current expenditures.

The balance has been higher than that for several years, and board members have questioned whether they need to revisit the level.

Kjergaard said the fund balance has been higher through some good management and some luck, and he would not want to see it increased. The balance is likely to shrink over the next few years to meet district needs and to handle fluctuations in state or federal funding.

Board member Linda Mathiasen said the district's auditors suggested a fund balance between 10 percent and 25 percent.

Harrington said school districts have a wide variety of fund balance goals. Some are at 3 percent of expenditures, or less. Others strive for as much as 30 percent.

"We figure our job is not to make money; our job is to educate kids," he said.

Budget documents are available on the district's website at

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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