School board generates further public feedback during its final forum to discuss the state of its finances and facilities

WILLMAR -- Several residents at a public forum Thursday suggested the Willmar School Board continue studying the possibility of building a new elementary school.

WILLMAR -- Several residents at a public forum Thursday suggested the Willmar School Board continue studying the possibility of building a new elementary school.

Some others said they would rather fix the district's older buildings.

About 35 people attended the third and final public forum Thursday evening.

The board had asked residents to help decide what to do in the future about the district's finances and facilities.

After three forums, board members said they need to find the answers to the voters' questions.


Board members have discussed placing an operating levy referendum on the fall election ballot in the hope of avoiding some future budget cuts. They are also considering whether to make repairs to the Jefferson, Washington and Lincoln schools or to build a new school to replace them. Kennedy and Roosevelt elementary schools would stay open.

Because it's so early in the process, the board doesn't have answers to questions about costs and possible efficiencies in a new building. They haven't even decided yet how large the operating levy would be if they decide to hold a referendum in the fall.

The district's taxpayers currently provide an operating levy of $495 per pupil. Most districts Willmar's size have higher levies, said Business and Finance Director Bob Haines.

If the district had a higher levy, it could collect another $500,000 a year in state aid, he added.

"I think people are a little surprised to find out there's $500,000 we don't get because we don't have a levy in place," Chairman Dion Warne said.

To find answers to building cost questions, the district would need to hire an architect and to conduct another series of community meetings, said Superintendent Kathy Leedom.

"There was a strong sense today, go to the next step," Warne said after the forum.

"I feel we're catching them off guard because we're so far out front on this," said board member Eric Roberts. Roberts said others in the community have also told him the board should continue studying a new school.


"I think they feel very appreciative of the fact that we're talking to them," added board member Mike Carlson.

A study of the district's buildings a year ago indicated a need for future improvements costing more than $18 million.

Not all of those repairs will be done, board members said during the forum.

However, "a good chunk of them are going to need to happen," Carlson said.

Several people commented about the quality workmanship in the older buildings and the desire to preserve the older buildings and keep elementary students in smaller schools.

Others said they were concerned about air quality in the older schools and wanted the district to study a new building.

"I think you're going to have to go to the next step," said audience member Ron Erpelding. "Not to decide is to decide." If the board goes ahead with big-ticket maintenance work, "you have decided, and it may not be the best choice," he added.

"You're not going to get by for cheap, no matter what we decide, and I think we need to keep that in mind," said former board member Laura Morris.


"There's a lot of interest in operating schools in a fashion that will serve our students well," Leedom said after the forum. "People care about the children in our school district."

Though not everyone at the forums agreed, they want to see the board do what's best for those children, Leedom said.

"The message that has come across very clearly -- we definitely need more information now for people to respond to," she said.

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