Willmar School Board sets priorities, plan for deciding $2 million in budget cuts for next school year

Falling enrollment and inflation are leading to budget cuts in Willmar Public Schools. The school board has set a plan for deciding on the cuts, and it includes a list of unacceptable cuts.

A file photo of the Willmar Public Schools sign at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, where the administration offices are located.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune file photo

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board may have to cut $2 million from the district budget for the 2023-24 school year.

The board this week discussed the process and some priorities to guide the administration’s plan, which could lead to final decisions by the board in April.

Jeff Holm mug
Jeff Holm, Willmar Superintendent
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The cuts are the result of declining enrollment and the compounding effects of many years when state aid increases did not cover inflation, Superintendent Jeff Holm told the board at its Monday meeting.

The loss of state aid from the loss of students is nearly $2 million, Holm said, so that figure guided his recommendation.

“What we’re really proposing here is to ‘right size’ our staffing,” Holm said.


More than 80% of the district’s expenses are salaries and benefits, he said, so layoffs are likely at the end of the process.

Staff may have increased in some ways since 2020, he said. He’s recommending a return to pre-pandemic patterns from two years ago.

The cuts would total about 3-4% of the budget, said Kathryn Haase, director of business and finance.

The original budget for this school year had a $5 million deficit, with revenue of $62.5 million and expenses of $67.6 million. The budget will be revised this spring with updated information.

One-time pandemic relief funding has been used by the district to maintain operations during the pandemic, she said.

Kathryn Haase.jpg
Willmar Public Schools Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase

Willmar and many other districts used it to maintain staffing levels during the pandemic, and to add social workers and nurses.

The last of the pandemic funding expires in September 2024.

Haase said there are many unknowns in next year’s state funding. The Legislature could decide to increase funding for schools, which would be helpful, or adopt new unfunded mandates, which would not.


One thing is known — compensatory revenue will increase by $2.6 million next year, she said. That funding is intended to help pay for students whose academic performance does not meet standards for their age. The funding is determined by the level of those eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

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Holm said the budget reduction process began a few weeks ago with the board’s Finance Committee, which met to discuss the pending cuts.

A citizen task force with members representing a diverse cross-section of the community has met once and will meet several more times through March. Its members are discussing the priorities and hopes they have for the district.

Task force members’ views will be forwarded to school administrators. who will consider them in developing a plan.

The plan includes a list of priorities for the district, along with a list of cuts the board would consider unacceptable.

“It’s best to identify those things ahead of time, so we don’t spend a lot of energy on something that you, as a board, wouldn’t support,” Holm said.

Another reason cuts are needed is the cost of providing special education and English Learner programs. Federal and state support has been promised — but only partially delivered — to help pay for special education and English Learner programs. Those services must be provided, even when they stretch the local budget, Holm said.

Maintaining those programs and not blaming the students who need them are some of the district priorities, he said.


“We are going to continue to serve kids with special needs and in EL, not only because we are compelled to legally, but we are morally compelled to do so,” he said.

Holm said the process won’t be hidden from the public, and decisions won’t be made in isolation. The district will continue to strive to be a district of choice, he said.

Schools are required to maintain their spending in special education or lose federal funding, he said. Cuts in special education could lead to more problems for the district.

Board members added a few items to the unacceptable list. Board member Tammy Barnes said she wanted the district to continue its transition to standards-based learning. The district and its teaching staff have already invested time and effort in developing the method of instruction.

Board member Jay Lawton said he wanted it clear that the cuts would not isolate ethnic communities. That could be included in the category of making Willmar a district of choice for the area, Holm suggested.

Board member Mike Reynolds said budget reductions were an annual effort in the past, and the district has been fortunate to have gone a number of years without having to do that.

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: or phone 320-214-4340
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