Willmar School Board approves $2 million in cuts due to falling enrollment
Falling enrollment has led to the need to reduce the budget for the 2023-24 school year. Enrollment fell at the beginning of the pandemic, rebounded a bit in 2021-22 and has fallen again this year.
WILLMAR — To cut $2 million from next year’s general fund budget, the Willmar School Board eliminated 31 positions from the payroll Monday afternoon.
However, with staff turnover, the district does not expect to lay off any faculty members. They will be able to move into other positions open because of retirement or resignations.
Many hourly employees whose positions were eliminated could move into other job openings in the district, too, Superintendent Jeff Holm told the board at its Monday meeting.
The board approved the cuts unanimously.
The list of cuts includes 15 jobs in elementary schools, 13.7 jobs in secondary schools and two district-level support positions.
The list includes a total of 17 teachers and seven paraprofessionals. Other jobs on the list include crossing guards, a playground supervisor and an assistant coach.
About $250,000 of the non-personnel cuts comes from the buildings and grounds budget. That cost of some repair work will be shifted to the Long Term Facility Maintenance fund, which receives state funding for the maintenance of aging buildings.
The $2 million represents the amount of state aid lost because of a drop in enrollment during the pandemic. More than 80% of operating revenue comes from that state aid, which is tied to enrollment.
The school district has lost more than 250 students since the 2019-20 school year. The average daily enrollment then was 4,261, according to information in annual audit reports.
The estimated average daily enrollment for the current school year is 4,003 students.
A variety of factors have affected enrollment. Willmar has a net loss of about 500 students to open enrollment each year. School officials say that number has been relatively stable in recent years.
Enrollment dipped during the pandemic. It rebounded somewhat in 2021-22 but dipped again this year.
The loss of public school enrollment is a nationwide issue. Some students have left for homeschooling, private schools or online public schools.
Some of the loss this year appears to be from families moving out of the area, Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase has told the board.
A 42-member citizen task force sent its advice about priorities for budget cuts to the board last month. They asked the board to focus on mental health; athletics and fine arts; class size and student/teacher ratios; programs and curriculum; and the district’s core instruction/educational goals.
After the vote, Holm said it’s still unclear how the Minnesota Legislature will handle school funding in its current session. The Legislature is set to adjourn May 22.
A bill authorizing two years of free school meals for all children has already been signed, Haase said, but other issues are still to be decided.
The funding for free meals would go into a separate fund dedicated to food service, Haase said, so the money from that won’t benefit the general fund, which pays for day-to-day operations.
“We are hearing a lot about a record investment in schools,” Holm said.
However, the additional funding could come with rules about how it’s spent, he said.
If new funding doesn’t have much effect on the general fund, Holm said, the board may need to cut the budget again next year.
Some employees, including social workers and nurses, are still being paid with federal pandemic relief funding, which expires in mid-2024.
Pandemic relief funding was designated for certain uses. The remaining dollars are to be used in part for the continuity of operations and also for aiding students in recovering from the upheaval of the pandemic.
If the legislative funding doesn’t meet the district’s needs, “do we ask taxpayers for additional revenue,” Holm asked.
“I wouldn’t be ready to make a recommendation until the Legislature has completed their work,” he said. However, if a levy is a possibility, it would be a good idea to seek input from the community before a decision is made.
Assistant Superintendent Bill Adams said a decision would need to be made by August to put a levy vote on the November election ballot. Adams has had more experience in seeking operating levies than Holm has.
Before deciding to do that, “you would want to go out and ask a variety of questions,” he said. Questions could gauge voters’ opinions of the district and how their support would be affected by the effect a levy would have on their taxes.
“Generally speaking, you want to be $20 or less per month on the impact on taxpayers generally,” he said, and that could be determined by the survey.
“As a board, you can’t make a decision unless you have some of that data,” Adams said, and it may be a good idea to start with a survey.
Holm said it wouldn’t hurt to gather preliminary data, but the decision would also hinge on the Legislature’s decisions.
“We’ll analyze that before we ask you to make a decision,” he said.
“I have no appetite to ask taxpayers for more money,” said board member Scott Thaden. “However, I took this position because I care about kids and the district, and I think we have to do our due diligence.”
The board voted unanimously to allow the administration to do the preliminary study for a referendum.