Weather Forecast


Unger looks back at highs and lows of 15 years on Willmar School Board

Retiring Willmar School Board member Sandi Unger of Willmar speaks about her time on the School Board. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — Sandi Unger received two pieces of advice when she joined the Willmar School Board 15 years ago.

Several of the sitting members told her to “keep your mouth shut; when we want your opinion, we’ll ask for it.” They also said, “Decisions are easy when you think about what’s best for kids.”

As she reflected this week on her board tenure, Unger said with a smile that “I did better at one than the other.”

The last 15 years were eventful in the Willmar School District, said Unger, 51, who didn’t seem shy about asking questions or advocating for students during board discussions.

Unger said she decided to retire from the board because “an organization needs some new energy and new ideas.” The family may be putting their Willmar home on the market and moving to Spicer, too, she said.

The district went into statutory operating debt shortly after she joined the board. It means that the district’s budget deficit was larger than the state allows.

“We spent a great deal of time dealing with statutory operating debt,” she said. “Through the process, I gained knowledge about school funding.”

The SOD situation and the accompanying budget cuts were a difficult time for the school district and the entire community, she said.

“I’ve been proud to represent the Willmar schools,” she said. “SOD was a bad time, but since that time … everybody has taken an interest in the schools.”

If anything good came out of it, she said, it was the resulting community involvement. Many more people “understood how funding is not meeting our needs as a district.”

In addition to the primary job of teaching students, the district deals with many other issues, like mobility of families to and from the district and the poverty rate in the area.

Standardized tests used by the state do not tell the whole story of a district, she said.

“We have teachers who go above and beyond to help kids,” she said. “A failing grade doesn’t show the progress a student may have made.”

Unger said she was frequently frustrated by the school funding situation in Minnesota, where education is often the last budget decision made by the Legislature.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we have to pass a levy just to run a district,” she said. “Every kid deserves the same education, and it shouldn’t depend on where you live.”

Unger said she and her husband Kevin were attracted to the cultural diversity of Willmar when they moved to the area 18 years ago. “This is what the world is like,” she said. “It’s what we wanted for our children.”

The Ungers’ three children — Ali, 22, Jack, 21, and Jimmy, 19 — all graduated from Willmar Senior High and enjoyed growing up in the community, she said. “I’ve been grateful for the education they received.”

For the most part, her kids were unaffected by her being on the School Board, she said. However, they would ask questions during budget time, when they heard comments about what might be eliminated.

By far the most difficult decisions she had were about budget cuts, she said.

“I have lost sleep over it,” she said, because she knew there was a face and a family behind every position that is being cut. “There are such good people working with kids in this district.”

Funding limitations and shrinking enrollment have made it necessary to cut spending in many years, but the board was able to add a few things, too.

Voting to implement all-day, everyday kindergarten was a highlight for Unger, as was adding a Chinese program and a soccer team. “This is what you love about this job,” she added. “The best part of being on this board is getting to know the people in this district.”

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

(320) 214-4340