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Residents might be asked to support tax hike

WILLMAR -- Willmar School District voters may be asked to raise their taxes to help out their schools.

The Willmar School Board started talking about an operating levy referendum at its Monday meeting. A final decision could be made at the board's June 14 meeting.

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said he wanted to wait until June to see what the Legislature does with school funding. The Legislature is expected to adjourn in mid-May.

The district has cut about 10 percent from its $40 million budget in the past two years, including closing two buildings, laying off staff and raising fees.

However, a financial squeeze at the state level has left Willmar and most other school districts in the state with financial uncertainty. The state faces a projected budget deficit of more than $5 billion. The state has withheld 27 percent of this year's state aid without any provision in law to ensure that school districts receive it next year.

The state has also delayed aid payments due in March and April, promising to send the money by the end of May.

In addition, the state took $500 million out of the K-12 school budget and replaced it with federal economic stimulus money. When the stimulus money is gone, many school officials fear the state will not be able to replace the state funding that was removed. Willmar's share of that is $2.3 million.

Kjergaard has had two meetings with community members about a referendum. They have been supportive of a new levy and "they understand why we need one," he said.

Kjergaard said he will have more similar meetings, including some with senior citizens, to gauge community opinions.

The district has a current levy of $498.49 per pupil, which will expire in another year. Kjergaard said the board could ask voters to repeal that levy and approve a new one, which would be in effect for another 10 years. The district also has a $201.51 levy approved in 2008.

The board will need to decide the amount of a new levy, he said. He distributed information about the impact of asking voters to increase the levy by $200 or $400.

A $698.49 levy would raise another $883,000 for the district. An $898.49 levy would raise another $1.8 million.

The maximum amount the state would allow the district to seek would be 1,365.65, Kjergaard said, but he would not recommend an increase that big.

"This is not a solution; it buys us some time," said board Chairman Brad Schmidt.

Kjergaard agreed that the goal is to maintain services the district already provides.

Kjergaard also reported on a meeting last week with superintendents from a number of school districts in the area. The superintendents discussed finding ways to maintain services in area schools.

"We're trying to focus on what's best for kids," he said, and to talk about how to break down barriers between school districts and work together.

"We're hoping to generate some creative options, because people are saying we're not going to get any (more) money for three years.

One of the next steps may be to hold discussions in different areas, possibly in each county, Kjergaard said

In other business, the board voted to make June 4 a day for staff training, to make up for a snow day last winter for which teachers have already been paid. The day was to have been a workday for teachers but will now have scheduled activities.

The board approved an agreement with the administrators' bargaining units. The two-year agreement allows for no increases in salary or in longevity payments. The district will allow the principals and assistant principals five days of personal time a year, rather than the previous year. The district will also raise the maximum matching amount to be contributed to their retirement accounts.

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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