Pillager voters face May decision
PILLAGER - With a growing enrollment, the Pillager School District is taking the question of whether to expand to about 2,800 voters in May.
The school district released its plans in a newsletter to residents this week. The district is asking for about $13.5 million to construct a secondary addition. Chuck Arns, Pillager School superintendent, said the referendum is driven by a growing school that is out of space for students.
Pillager's growth pattern for its elementary school began in 2005. Overall, student growth has averaged 3 percent annually, or 24 children, the size of a classroom.
For the 2010-2011 school year, the enrollment increase was 7 percent - or 55 students - to raise the district's total to 851 students.
"At the rate we are growing, we don't have room," Arns said. "We are crowded now. If we grow 7 percent over the next two years, which we did this year, we'll be over 1,000 kids. We're not even close to having room for 1,000 kids. So the board will have some very difficult decisions and the administration will have some difficult ones, too.
"I'd like to think we are growing because people like what we are doing."
A fourth kindergarten section was added to keep the average class size to 19. The additional kindergarten class has implications for future needs for first grade and down the line.
"It just comes moving down the hall at us," Arns said.
The Pillager School District houses all its grades in one building and includes an early childhood addition constructed two years ago.
"One of the models Pillager has stayed with and I believe in is small
class sizes. It's been one of the hallmark's for what Pillager stood for," Arns said.
The plan calls for a 60,000-square-foot secondary addition, which could house middle school or high school students, to the school's west side. The proposal calls for 12 additional classrooms, a technology room, new band room, gymnasium with lockers and seating for 1,100 people, district office and expanded cafeteria seating.
In addition, renovation of the existing school interior would increase the media center and add an activity room to the early childhood building. Arns said the expanded cafeteria would help shorten the lunch time, which now extends from 11 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. in order to accommodate all the students.
Details on what the referendum will mean to property owners is still being worked on and expected for the 7 p.m. Feb. 10 community meeting along with drawings of what the addition may look like, which Widseth Smith Nolting preferred to withhold until the public meeting.
Arns said bringing a bond referendum before the taxpayers in this difficult economy with high unemployment isn't lost on him or board members.
"We realize that," Arns said. "I know it's a tough time."
But he said it was a question they believed should be put before the voters. The district employs 65 teachers. Arns said the school district has been frugal, maintained an 18-20 percent fund balance and made cuts.
After years of losing students and thus financial resources to open enrollment, Arns said Pillager reduced the number of students leaving from 275 to 220 and increased the number of non-residential students coming in from 194 to 254 - some from Staples and Brainerd. Arns pointed to a revamped curriculum, increases in Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test scores by 21 percentage points and a positive atmosphere.
"I believe it is the small atmosphere," Arns said. "Smaller class sizes made a huge difference for us."
One option is to close open enrollment and limit growth. Arns said there are fewer resources for Pillager students if open enrollment is closed. He said once growth is turned into a decline it's a "horrendous ship to try to turn."
Arns said the district has been a good steward of taxpayers' dollars.
"The climate with the community is huge, it's very positive right now, so we weren't fearful of giving them an opportunity to say yes or no," Arns said. "It's their school."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.