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Willmar School Board adopts revised budget with more state funding due to higher enrollment

A revised budget indicates Willmar Public Schools revenue is projected to increase from $58.1 million to $61.5 million for the year, and spending is expected to increase from $62 million to $63.4 million.

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WILLMAR — A revised budget indicates Willmar Public Schools will receive more revenue and spent more than originally anticipated in the current school year.

Revenue is projected to increase from $58.1 million to $61.5 million for the year, and spending is expected to increase from $62 million to $63.4 million.

The Willmar School Board adopted the revised budget at its meeting Monday.

Budget revisions are routine, as the state requires school districts to adopt their budgets before the next fiscal year begins July 1. Some information about income and spending is not available at that point.

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Willmar Public Schools Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase

While the district always expected to spend some of its undesignated general fund balance, additional revenue will cut that amount in half.

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The district’s enrollment has rebounded after sinking during the 2020-21 school year, but it is not at pre-pandemic levels, Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase told the board.

During the pandemic, “families made a lot of different choices,” she said, and enrollment fell from 4,261 in 2019-20 to 4,085 in 2020-21. Enrollment had been projected to drop another 75 students in the current year, but it is now expected to increase to 4,103 for the year.

The new projection is still about 150 students fewer than before the pandemic, but “we have been pleased to have more students here,” she said.

With state aid often tied to enrollment, more students means more funding. The state also increased the basic school aid formula 2.4%, up from the 1% projected in the original budget. Those changes will result in a $1.6 million increase in state aid, from $48.5 million to $50.1 million.

A large increase in federal funds, due to COVID-19 relief funding, has added another $1.7 million to the budget projections.

The relief funds have limited uses and each allotment has a different expiration date, Haase said. The district is reimbursed for what it spends and the Minnesota Department of Education must approve how it’s spent.

During the pandemic, the relief funds were used to provide technology to aid in distance learning. The funds are also available to try to help students catch up after the disruptions caused by the pandemic.

The Minnesota Department of Education has approved the district’s use of the pandemic relief funds to add enrichment activities to summer school. Also approved is a plan to pay teachers to work extra days developing a new standards-based learning program, designed to increase student achievement.

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COVID relief funds have helped the district maintain its operation even with falling enrollment, Haase said. However the district could face a “fiscal cliff” when that funding is gone and will need to plan for that, she added.

“I am proud of how we have handled” the COVID relief funding, Haase said, as the district has tried to spend it to benefit students.

More by Linda Vanderwerf:
Students from Focus House, a program to help people with special needs prepare for living on their own, have spoken to fourth-graders in the past month about bullying and how to address it. Many of the young adults from Focus House said they've been bullied in the past.

In other business, the board received a positive review and comment from the Minnesota Department of Education regarding its planned addition to Willmar Middle School.

The Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, a partner in the project, is waiting to learn whether the Legislature approves bonding funding for a center for high-needs special education students in the addition.

The meeting was opened for public comments. About a dozen people were at the meeting, but no one commented on it.

The board approved increases to student meal prices in the next school year. All students now receive free breakfast and lunch, but the pandemic aid for that will end after this school year.

Elementary prices will increase from $1.90 to $2.15 for lunch. Secondary student prices will increase from $2.05 to $2.25.

Food and Nutrition Director Annette Derouin said the increases are needed to cover rising costs due to inflation.

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Willmar’s prices continue to be less than the state average, Derouin said.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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