WILLMAR — Willmar School Board has set a special election for April 13 to fill a vacant seat on the board.

Superintendent Jeff Holm also announced the district would stick to its plan to bring students back to school buildings next week.

The board met Monday for a regular meeting and to organize for the year.

The special election is needed to fill the unexpired term of former board member Michael O’Brien, who was elected to the Willmar City Council in November. State law requires the district conduct a special election to fill the remaining two years of his term.

Candidates may file beginning Jan. 27 at the district office at the Willmar Education and Arts Center. Filing closes at 4 p.m. Feb. 10.

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The board voted to appoint former board member Laura Warne to serve as an interim board member. The appointment is also required in state law.

The Jan. 19 date for returning to hybrid learning was set when all students began distance learning in November.

The state recently cleared districts to return to in-person instruction for elementary students, Holm said, but it could only be done three grades at a time, with several weeks in between each group.

Sticking with hybrid learning would allow the district to bring all grades back right away, if only for two days a week, he said.

If the decision to return to full-time, in-person classes is made, older students at first would continue to attend school in hybrid model.

His reasoning, he said, was that it would be better to have all students in school at least two days a week right away and to begin transition to full-time school if things seem to be going well.

While the area's COVID-19 case numbers have been lower lately, “I would speculate that doesn’t mean this is all behind us and the trend will continue,” he said.

Decisions about keeping students in school buildings will depend on availability of staff members, too, he said.

The board approved a new three-year contract for Holm beginning July 1. The annual salary for the 2021-22 school year will be $175,000, and it will increase $3,000 a year for the rest of the contract.

“I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for the support you as a board have offered and for offering me another three years in the district,” Holm said. “I appreciate it.”

Board Chairman Mike Reynolds said, “We appreciate you and all you’ve done here the past almost six years. ... You’ve done some great things.”

In her report, Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase said current enrollment is 4,143 students. That’s 174 students less than the same week a year ago and 136 students less than at the end of the last school year.

The number of students plays a part in much of the funding schools receive from the state.

“Our district was in a solid financial position coming into the pandemic, and that gives us some flexibility to absorb some of that shock,” she said.

The district was able to spend all its pandemic funding with a deadline of the end of December. Some funding is still available to be spent later.

In addition, a pandemic relief bill adopted by Congress in late December will bring more funding for schools, she said, though details aren't yet available.

In its organization meeting, the board elected officers — Reynolds was elected chairman; Justin Bos, vice chairman; Scott Thaden, clerk; and Tammy Barnes, treasurer. It’s the same group of officers the board had last year.

Board pay was set at 10% of a starting teacher’s base pay, currently $4,241.10.