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District officials eye major cuts as they look to balance budget

Kindergarten student Bailey Erickson of Willmar reads a book during Nichole Gleason's class at Kennedy Elementary School in Willmar in this May 17, 2008, file photo. The Willmar School District, in an effort to trim up to $3 million from its budget, is proposing closing Washington Learning Center and moving its programs to Kennedy, which is currently a K-4 school. The shifts and closings would lead to staff reductions that could save the district as much as $825,000 in the elementary and middle schools, ...

WILLMAR -- Closing two buildings and realigning grades in four others were at the top of a long list of possible budget cuts presented to the Willmar School Board on Monday.

Board members met in a workshop setting to discuss the path they'd take to $2.5 million in budget cuts for the 2009-2010 school year. The cut would be about 6 percent of the district's current $41 million general fund budget.

About 50 people, mostly school employees, attended the meeting to observe the discussion. Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard and administrators submitted a list of $3 million in proposed cuts. Kjergaard said he wanted to give board members some choice in how they reach the final number.

Kjergaard said board members still need to discuss whether they want to tap into the district's general fund reserve. Board policy requires that the general fund reserve be at least 6 percent of annual expenditures.

Board Chairman Brad Schmidt said he and other board members hope to hear from the public about the proposals in the next two weeks. There will be more discussion at the Feb. 9 board meeting and at the board's workshop on Feb. 23. Final decisions are likely to come in March.

Schmidt appreciated having the two-hour workshop to discuss the list. "It was nice to have it presented in this format without having to make decisions right now," he said. 'It's nice to be able to make choices."

Much of the savings is certain to come through staff layoffs, because about three-quarters of the district's general fund costs are for personnel. The Willmar School District is one of Willmar's largest employers, with more than 600 employees.

The list includes the possible layoff of about 20 teachers at all grade levels and in special education. The jobs of two dozen other employees could be affected.

Technology purchases could be put on hold, with only enough money left in the budget to make repairs and replace broken equipment.

Board members said they liked a plan to close two schools and realign programs and grades in four remaining schools. The end result would be a kindergarten center at Jefferson Elementary, students in grades 1-5 at Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools and grades 6-8 at the Junior High, which would become a middle school.

However, teacher Joan Kuhn spoke to the board about the idea. The district tried a kindergarten center in the 1990s, and it didn't work out as well as hoped, she said.

The idea of delaying technology purchases was troubling to some. It would include a delaying purchasing new Smart Boards for classrooms. "How quickly would we fall behind," asked board member Dion Warne.

"We're probably behind already, because it changes so fast," Kjergaard said, but the district could hold its own for a while, he said.

For savings like the technology cuts and others, divide the estimate by $55,000, he said, "and that's how many teachers we're saving." That's the figure used to estimate the average salary and benefits for a faculty member.

Board members said they were concerned about a proposal to increase athletic fees in grades 9-12. They were concerned that some young people would not participate because of the fees. A suggestion that they apply to have the school foundation pay their fees drew protests from the board members who serve with the foundation. The extra burden would drain the foundation budget, they said.

"This is a big chunk to swallow for people who just voted themselves a fee increase last November," said board member Mike Reynolds, referring to the operating levy approved in the election.

Administrators said the new fees would be about average for the schools in the Central Lakes Conference.