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Willmar Public Schools: Focusing on Priorities While Making Difficult DecisionsPosted by Dr. Jeffrey Holm on 4/21/2023
The budget situation at the Willmar Public School District has been in the news lately, particularly following our last school board meeting where $2 million in reductions were approved, mainly by eliminating 31 positions from our payroll. Because of staff turnover, we don’t expect to lay anyone off at this time, but we understand how unsettling hearing this news is for our staff and also for our community. We know that people’s lives are deeply affected and we are doing what we can to mitigate the stress for our staff during this uncertain time.
It’s natural to wonder how this happened. Due to increasing expenditures and lagging revenues, we are potentially facing a $5 million deficit for the 2022-2023 school year – the District’s general fund (saving’s account) will make up the remaining $3 million of the projected budget deficit. We simply don’t have the enrollment we once did, which means we have fewer funds coming in to offset the needs and expenditures of the students who remain.
When sharing this news, we’ve heard the following question, “If you were able to eliminate so many positions without laying anyone off, was the school running inefficiently?” That is a fair question. Part of the answer lies in our staffing levels during the pandemic. We intentionally made our class sizes a little smaller to provide a little more space in each classroom. Additionally, many students left our schools due to moving out of the district or other options. While we expected some students to have returned, many have not, which also means the revenue from these students has been lost.
Some are placing hope that the state legislature will solve schools’ budget problems by coming through with what has been called “historic increases” in funding, but just like households have been affected by inflation taking a bite into modest gains in income, it’s important to realize that even an optimistic 5% increase in funding in each of the next two years does not make up for the increases in inflation rates we’ve been experiencing over the past few years and might expect in the foreseeable future. Further confounding factors include the potential for unfunded mandates that are making their way through the state legislature that would require increased spending at the local school level.
Willmar School District is resilient in the short term; we can manage the increase in class sizes this round of budget reductions. But that’s this year. The trend of reduced income and increased fiscal need is expected to continue. What of next year and the years to follow? How many years can we reduce staff and increase classroom sizes to balance our budget before it becomes unsustainable?
What led us to our current situation is complicated, and there is a need for collaboration as we look to a new reality in our district. Our responsibility now is for the viability of the organization as we go forward. Keeping an eye on our future, we have to think about the possibility of more cuts and raising revenue. One way we can consider raising revenue has already been discussed by our board, and that is an operating levy. An operating levy merits further deliberation among both the board and the community at large.
In the near future we will be conducting a public opinion survey to determine the level of interest the community has in pursuing a levy. Information gathered from the survey and additional work of our local task force will be provided to our school board as they work through the decision-making process. We will keep you informed as more information is available. Watch for updates on our website, www.willmar.k12.mn.us.
The decisions we’ve made to date have been difficult, but I know they have been made with the best interests of the students, staff, and community in mind because we have been keeping in touch and plan to continue to do so every step of the way.
Willmar Public Schools: Strong Today. Future Focused.Posted by Dr. Jeffrey Holm on 4/7/2023
Willmar Public Schools has a lot to celebrate: a welcoming environment, diverse academic offerings strong athletic programs and an exceptional fine arts department. That being said, we are at a financial crossroads. Simply put, the District is spending more than it brings in each year, and while it may sound like an easy fix: spend less and balance the budget, it’s not that simple. Let me explain.
Up until about 2021, our revenues and expenses were tracking along fairly closely, however, after that point, expenditures began to increase and revenues did not keep up, to the point where we’re potentially facing a $5 million deficit in FY2023. Let’s take a closer look at why each situation happened.
Expenditures increased – The cost for our Special Education and English Learner programs continue to increase, and state and federal funding for these programs doesn’t meet promised levels. Not only does the law preclude cuts to Special Education spending, we have a moral imperative to fund these important programs.
Lagging revenues – State funding per pupil has not kept pace with the increase in cost per pupil, nor with inflation in general. Additionally, enrollment has declined and is projected to continue to descend in the years to come, meaning that the dollars received per pupil will be lost.
Other Variables Affecting Situation
Other variables that have an impact on our current budget situation include the phasing out of COVID-19 funding; the potential impact of how compensatory aid (or additional funding received from the state) is calculated, which might turn out in our favor; students open enrolling to other districts; and funding changes that could result following the conclusion of this year’s legislative session. Another variable we must consider is a staffing shortage for everything from our educators to support staff, which means we need competitive salaries and benefits to attract and retain quality staff.
While the District has a modest general fund balance of approximately $12 million this year, the fund could be completely depleted in a few short years if we were to rely on it to make up for the district’s annual shortfall. This year, we are looking at reducing our budget by $2 million to begin to rightsize our budget. The cuts won’t be easy, but we believe they are the prudent thing to do to address a serious issue that cannot be kicked down the road for a future board to deal with.
Community Members Providing Input
The board has enlisted the input of a Task Force of more than 40 individuals from throughout the community, representing all walks of life, including teachers, parents, business owners, and more. To date the Task Force has met three times . The group has named five priorities for the School Board to consider as it reviews potential cuts to the district budget. The following made the top of the list:
1: Mental Health & Student Safety
2: Athletics and Fine Arts
3: Class Sizes/Teacher-to-Student Ratio
4: Academic Programming and Curriculum Resources
5: Instructional Core Focus
Additionally, staff has been informed of the latest information through a series of update meetings throughout February and March. We will hold Community Meetings in April and May - watch for invitations coming soon.