Willmar School Board heads for budget analysis, possible cuts, after losing 250+ students in past three years

Jan. 10—WILLMAR

— Budget cuts for 2023-24 school year are almost certainly on the way for

Willmar Public Schools

.

The School Board adopted a resolution at its Monday meeting directing administrators to review the district's operations and make recommendations for changes in programs and staffing.

During the meeting, several administrators said they plan to begin placing the resolution on the agenda each year as an annual exercise in reviewing the district's operation.

"As good stewards of our resources, we should look at it every year," said Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase.

However, this year, the loss of enrollment in recent years indicates that budget cuts may be needed. The state of Minnesota provides more than 80% of the district's revenue, and the majority is based on the number of students.

The district had 4,080 students at the end of last week, Haase said, and in the same week a year ago, enrollment was 135 students higher.

In January 2020, before the pandemic, enrollment was 4,336, which represents a net loss of 256 students in three years.

Public schools across the state and the country have also seen enrollment decrease. School officials in Willmar have said the loss is a combination of families choosing online learning, private school, home school or another school district through open enrollment.

More than a decade ago, the number of students leaving and entering Willmar's schools through open enrollment was about the same.

That is no longer the case. In the state's most recent open enrollment report for the 2020-21 school year, 113 students entered the district but 643 students left, a net loss of 530 students to other districts.

The district's budget for the current school year estimates revenue of $62.5 million and expenditures of $67.6 million. It was set in June, a state requirement, which is before grants and other revenue is known.

The budget for the current year will be revised this spring with updated information, and the budget for 2023-24 will be set in June.

Pandemic relief aid has helped school districts provide services to help districts make building improvements and hire workers to help students navigate the disruptions of the pandemic.

However, much of that funding has already expired, and the remainder will expire by September 2024.

Superintendent Jeff Holm said this is the second time since he joined the district in 2015 that budget cuts have been under consideration.

"We've always looked for ways to be efficient," he said.

Board member Mike Reynolds said, "We got spoiled for a while."

Assistant Superintendent Bill Adams said the work on reviewing potential reductions will begin with an administrative cabinet meeting next week. The board's Finance Committee will also be meeting to discuss the issue.

In other business, the board reorganized for the year and chose the same slate of officers from the past year — Justin Bos, chairman; Reynolds, vice chairman; Scott Thaden, clerk; and Tammy Barnes, treasurer.

The board increased board member pay for attending meetings outside the regular board schedule. The stipend will be $50 for meetings of two to four hours and $100 for meetings longer than four hours. The stipend is to help partially compensate board members for attending training and long committee meetings that require them to leave work.