District needs levy to pass to avoid $2.5M in cuts

WILLMAR -- Dion Warne, a Willmar School board member, acknowledged that the Willmar School District faces a challenge in trying to pass a school operating levy during a presidential election.

WILLMAR -- Dion Warne, a Willmar School board member, acknowledged that the Willmar School District faces a challenge in trying to pass a school operating levy during a presidential election.

But this is the time to do it, he said, and he laid out the case for the two-part levy question in a presentation to the Willmar Noon Lions at the Willmar Senior Center Wednesday.

The district will ask voters to approve a levy of $201.51 per pupil and another one of $374.36 per pupil in the Nov. 4 election. Both would be added to the current $498.49 per pupil levy which will expire in 2012.

Warne used a PowerPoint presentation entitled "Investing in Excellence" to make his case.

It was the first time the presentation was used in public. It was developed by school administration.


The levy would maintain the district's current programs and help the board avoid making deep cuts in the next year, he said.

"I'm not going to be here as Mr. Doomsday," Warne said, but the public would notice changes if the operating levy is not adopted.

Without the additional revenue from an operating levy, the board could have to cut as much as $2.5 million before the 2009-2010 school year begins. Those cuts could lead to larger class sizes, staff cuts, additional fees and the loss of some programs, he said.

It would have been difficult to ask voters for money a year ago, when the district's general fund balance was still quite healthy, Warne said. But inflation and little growth in state funding has led the district to cut its budget and drain more of its savings.

Waiting another year to avoid the presidential election would drain those reserves even more, Warne said. 'We're trying to plan away from that situation," he said. "We need to have some money set aside for a rainy day."

Warne, a banker, said he believes the school district is run in a responsible, business-like manner.

If the first question is passed, the new total operating levy would be $700. That would bring the district the maximum amount of state aid available to school districts with operating levies.

"For every dollar (in the $201.51 levy), we're asking the citizens to throw in 66 cents, and the state will throw in 34 cents," Warne said.


The $374.36 in the second question would be paid entirely by local taxpayers, Warne said.

The tax impact on a $120,000 home would be $48 a year for the first question and $166 a year for the second question. If both questions passed, the impact on a $120,000 home would be $214 a year or $18 a month.

"I realize that's real money for people," Warne said. "We believe we need it; that's why we're asking you for it."

Cities and counties have more freedom to raise taxes and sell bonds, he said. School districts can only do that by asking for their voters' permission.

Warne and Pam Harrington, the district's finance director, answered questions after the presentation.

Asked if the district would try to renew the levy that expires in 2012, Harrington said no decision as been made yet.

"We're watching the Legislature," she said, and if the school funding system is revamped, it may not be necessary to renew it.

A woman asked how the cost spent per student in Willmar compared with other districts. Warne said he didn't know, but it was something he would look into.


After the meeting, Warne said the questions were good ones and would help school officials add information to their presentation in the future.

Warne had told the group that he was there representing the school district and would present them with the reasons for seeking the levy but would not try to "rally the troops."

It can be difficult not to cross that line, though, he said afterward. "With four kids in school and being on the School Board, ... it's hard not to be a cheerleader for the school district."

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