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The Pillager School District is asking for about $13.5 million to construct a se

Pillager referendum session turnout fills gym

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PILLAGER — About 120 people arrived on a cold Thursday night to hear more about a proposed Pillager School District building project. 

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The Pillager School District is asking for about $13.5 million to construct a secondary addition. A mid-May vote is planned, but a specific date has not yet been set. 

“We’re up here because we are full,” said Chuck Arns, Pillager School superintendent, adding the referendum is driven by a growing school that is out of space for students.

Looking to the future, Arns noted there area 72 kindergartners now in the district, 78 four-year-olds, 81 three-year-olds and 100 two-year-olds. With the number of children in the district going up, Arns said the challenge is to keep class sizes small. 

“Small classes have been a very big part of the success of this district,” Arns said. At the present rate, Arns said the district will increase to 900 students by 2012. 

He said the school district was losing students a few years ago but now is seeing a stemming of the tide of students leaving and more students coming in from outside.

Thursday was the first community meeting the school district provided to discuss a proposed building project. 

Widseth Smith Nolting provided conceptual renderings of what the school addition may look like with a new gym, two classroom wings and a new main entrance and commons area. None of the plans are finalized. 

The district expects to have two more public meetings to discuss the proposed building project and will include Thursday’s presentation on the school district’s website. 

Participants at Thursday’s meeting were given handouts with a breakdown of the estimated tax increases for the 20-year bond referendum. 

For a $100,000 taxable market value home, the tax for the building project would be $61 per year or $5.08 per month. For a $60,000 commercial/industrial property, the tax is $55 per year. For a $600,000 agricultural homestead, the tax is $222 per year. For a seasonal and recreational residential property with a taxable market value of $500,000, the tax is $306 per year. 

After the meeting, Ken Newkirk, Pillager, said the project needs to be done, but he is concerned about the tax increases. Newkirk said his three children graduated from Pillager High School.

“That’s the only thing I see,” Newkirk said. “Our taxes are going up all over.”

Even so, Newkirk said he hoped the Pillager referendum passes. 

Jody Carey, a parent and volunteer at the school, said she sees firsthand the crowding issues at the school. 

“I absolutely support the referendum,” Carey said, adding the meeting brought forward good questions. After talking to other parents in the community, Carey said she believes the referendum has support. 

Questions from the audience included whether the school district has the money to operate the expanded school and how long the added space will meet needs. Arns said the district put money away last year and will be getting money from the growing student population. The additional space is expected to meet needs for at least 15 years. Others expressed concerns about building an energy-efficient addition that was sensible in construction. 

One man questioned why Pequot Lakes’ recently passed referendum, while for more money meant a smaller tax burden on individuals. The answer noted Pequot Lakes has one of the highest property values per pupil in the state so the cost is spread across a larger tax base than Pillager has. 

Arns was asked what the district will do if the referendum fails.

“I don’t know what we’d do,” Arns said. “The only option is to close open enrollment.”

Arns said even if that is done, the district’s own growing number of students will continue to make space problems a concern and potentially create a declining enrollment, limiting resources for Pillager students. 

Overall, student growth has averaged 3 percent annually, or 24 children, the size of a classroom. The gym doubles as the cafeteria and as a reading area. Arns said the space is so limited now students don’t get the time they should to eat because of the need to move students through. He said the media center is too small for the high school let alone the high school and elementary school — with 56 computers for 851 students. 

The district employs 65 teachers, about half living in the district. Arns said the district needs to add at least two teachers next year and doesn’t have the room.

For the 2010-2011 school year, the enrollment increase was 7 percent — or 55 students — to raise the district’s total to 851 students.

The plan calls for a 60,000-square-foot secondary addition to the west of the existing school through a pine grove. The addition could house middle school or high school students. 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.

RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at renee.richardson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5852.

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Sarah Nelson
Sarah Nelson joined the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2010 and works as a online reporter, content editor and staff writer. She is a world traveler, accused idealist and California native now braving the winters of Central Minnesota. She believes in the power of human resolve and hopes to be part of something that makes history by bringing an end to injustice in the world. Sarah has worked as a criminal background researcher, high school civics teacher, grant writer, and contributing writer with Causecast.org — tackling every issue from global poverty to bio-degradable bicycles. Her favorite thing about living in Minnesota is July. Sarah left the Brainerd Dispatch in April 2014.
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