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Pillager Public Schools: $14 million referendum to go to vote May 14

The Pillager School District's proposed $14 million referendum will go to a vote May 14. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 3
A rendering from Schuler Shook, of Minneapolis, shows a possible interior of the new auditorium included in the Pillager School District's upcoming referendum.2 / 3
A rendering from Widseth Smith Nolting shows a possible exterior of the new auditorium included in the Pillager School District's upcoming referendum.3 / 3

PILLAGER—Timing is everything. And Pillager School District administrators believe now is the right time to invest in the district's schools.

That's why May 14 is such an important day in the district. It's the day residents will vote "yes" or "no" on a roughly $14.39 million referendum to fund additional learning spaces, building maintenance projects and a 350-seat performing arts center for Pillager schools.

"This opportunity that we have right now is something that probably won't come around again for a while if it fails," said Brady Bussler, digital marketing manager with Widseth Smith Nolting, serving as a communications consultant for the district throughout the referendum process.

With low interest rates, Minnesota's Ag2School tax credit, and the district's current tax capacity, now is the time to act on a project struck down by an unsuccessful 2017 referendum, Bussler said during an interview Thursday, May 2.

And if this run fails, Bussler and Superintendent Mike Malmberg said it's unlikely the issue will come again in the near future, though the school's space issues will still remain.

2017 referendum

About 61% of voters opposed the 2017 $13.2 million referendum asking for funds to build more early childhood and elementary classrooms, tend to facility maintenance needs and build a 500-seat auditorium.

After conducting a voter surveying, district officials and school board members learned the cost was too high for many residents and the referendum's one question asked for too much.

They then revised the plan, beginning last November, and came up with the new one: two questions, scaling back the auditorium size and separating it from the classroom needs.

"It's not like we're just coming at them with the exact same thing," Bussler said. "With the revised proposed improvements that are part of this referendum, everything is well-planned, well-thought out, designed in such a way that it's going to handle the volume of students for a long time."

Question 1

Estimated at just under $8.5 million, Question 1 asks for funds to fix building maintenance issues and add classroom and vocational learning spaces.

The majority of the school's roof is more than 25 years old and leaks, causing water damage to floors, walls and equipment throughout the school, Malmberg said. Since 2013, the district has spent $130,000 patching the roof and fixing the water damage.

Though the high school portion of the building was constructed via referendum in 2011, sections of the middle and elementary areas were either built or updated in the '90s.

Old mechanical units, inadequate roof insulation and inefficient windows and doors, Malmberg said, mean the building battles low energy efficiency and climate control issues.

Mortar joints on the exterior brick work also need to be restored.

On the inside, five additional elementary school classrooms are included in Question 1, along with a music room, technology room, special education rooms, a new health clerk office by the front entrance and an expanded entrance hallway. Right now, one nurse's office serves the entire 1,160 student district.

The middle school would regain two classrooms now being used at the elementary level and would see updated special education areas and an additional teacher work area to free up classrooms during prep hours.

With trade programs gaining more and more emphasis in area schools, Question 1 also includes several additions to the district's vocational services programs. The current bus garage would be converted into a woodworking classroom, giving the metal and auto area more space for updates. The ProStart culinary program would see three new commercial kitchens, and a makerspace flexible classroom would be created in the media center to be used for additional programs. An online learning lab would also be created.

The vocational space updates, Malmberg said, would benefit students who want to go on to a trade school and contribute to the community's workforce.

One of those students is senior Chase Winterowd, a ProStart culinary student planning to use what he learned in high school to become a professional chef. He hopes to come back after graduation to help out with the program, which he found valuable for students like himself.

"I think it's really helping the kids in the chef program keep going," Winterowd said. "And I think it's good for the future of people that want to cook."

Question 2

For another $5.9 million, Question 2 asks voters to approve a 350-seat performing arts auditorium to be added on to the building's high school wing.

The second question is contingent on Question 1 passing, meaning if Question 1 fails, so does the auditorium.

Right now, the district's musical theater program takes place on a small stage in the elementary school cafeteria, which was built in 1940. Malmberg said the theater department has to be choosy about which plays it can put on, as the stage isn't big enough for shows that require a whole 60-person cast to be on stage at once.

The gym seats 220 people on folding chairs. That capacity was met four times during the March run of "Cinderella." The set had to be dismantled after rehearsals and performances so the cafeteria could be used.

The theater area does not have any dressing rooms, forcing students to change in the library, the kitchen, and a storage space. The acoustics are subpar, Malmberg said, and there are temperature control and space issues as well.

Chad Koel, a Pillager parent, theater volunteer and assistant football coach, has especially high hopes for the auditorium portion of the referendum.

"It's really quite incredible that a school district of our size does not have an auditorium," he said during a phone interview Friday, noting the extraordinary value he got out of theater programs while in school himself.

"The things that I learned being a part of the arts and theater in high school are far and away the most important things that made me into what I am today and the career that I have and everything else," he added. "Getting out of my comfort zone, getting in front of people, the confidence, those kinds of things are really what make you who you are, more so than what you know. And I just can't put a value on that."

Koel's own kids understand the benefits from fine arts programs, too. His oldest son was in band and continues to play in college. His younger son is pursuing an acting minor in college. And Koel's daughter is a Pillager High School junior who participates in the musical theater program.

"I think that a lot of people look at it as the performing arts is just a fun thing to do, but it's as much a training for a trade as auto shop or woodshop or metal shop or any of that," he said. "People do go into this stuff."

Pillager senior Julia Johnson, a musical theater participant, shares Koel's sentiments.

"With the theater we have now, we work with what we have, but it's not enough to go above and beyond what we need to do," she said, noting how much the theater program has grown since its beginning.

In the past few years, Malmberg said, the district has added speech, one-act plays and a middle school musical program as well, with 50-70 kids participating in each high school and middle school musical performance. Koel noted that ranks theater as the No. 1 program in the district in terms of enrollment, topping even the sports teams. The football team has a "word class" field, Koel said, and the basketball team as a brand new gym.

"Yet we take these musical kids, and we cram them into an 80-year-old cafeteria and say, 'Do your thing.' It's just not right," he said, noting he is an advocate for sports, too, as he played in high school and now coaches football and serves as announcer for all the school's sporting events.

An auditorium, though, wouldn't just be for student use. Malmberg envisions it as a community space, available for traveling musician performances, dance recitals, meetings, political caucuses and any other group that could use the space.

"I think it enhances the quality of life of our community," Malmberg said, noting the Pillager area doesn't have a comparable space right now.

If Question 2 were to pass, Koel said he hopes to start a community theater program. And even though she's a senior, Johnson said that's something she would definitely participate in, as she hopes to come back to the Pillager area after getting her teaching license.

Tax impact

Even though the new referendum costs more than the 2017 version, the tax impact is slightly lower this time, as the district's tax capacity has increased by about 11% since that time.

If voters approve both referendum questions, property owners will see the following tax increases.

• $100,000 home—$3 a month, or $36 a year.

• $150,000 home—$7 a month, or $84 a year.

• $300,000 home—$14 a year, or $168 a year.

• $100,000 commercial property—$7 a month, or $84 a year.

• $500,000 commercial property—$44 a month, or $528 a year.

• $1,000,000 commercial property—$92 a month, or $1,104.

If voters approve just Question 1, property taxes would increase as follows:

• $100,000 home—$2 a month, or $24 a year.

• $150,000 home—$4 a month, or $48 a year.

• $300,000 home—$8 a month, or $96 a year.

• $100,000 commercial property—$4 a month, or $48 a year.

• $500,000 commercial property—$26 a month, or $312 a year.

• $1,000,000 commercial property—$54 a month, or $648 a year.

The tax impact from Question 1 would last 20 years, while that of Question 2 would last 22 years.

A tax calculator is available at

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the referendum were to fail, Malmberg said the district will be forced to levy more long-term facilities maintenance dollars to pay for a new roof, which is among the building's most pressing concerns. So pass or fail, property taxes are likely to increase.

The Minnesota Department of Education's long-term facilities maintenance revenue program offers non-voter approved funds to pay for a district's 10-year facility plan. Money from the program can only be used for the following purposes:

• Deferred capital expenditures and maintenance projects necessary to prevent further erosion of facilities,

• Increased accessibility of school facilities,

• Health, safety and environmental management costs associated with implementing a district's health and safety program,

• Transferring money from a district's general fund reserve for long-term facilities maintenance to the debt redemption fund to pay amounts needed to meet principal and interest on general obligation bonds. Long-term facilities maintenance revenue program funds can only be used in this way after school board resolution.

Since these funds have been available to Pillager since 2017, the district has not always levied as much as it could have, as Malmberg said district officials wanted to keep taxes as low as possible. In 2017, the district levied $87,244 out of a possible $150,588, while in 2018 the district did levy the full $350,443 worth of maintenance program funds. This year, the district levied $117,600 out of a possible $382,171, which will result in property taxes being virtually unchanged or slightly reduced, depending on property values.

But if Question 1 on the new referendum fails, Malmberg said, the district will be forced to levy all $382,171 maintenance program dollars available in 2020 and for the next 8-10 years to pay for a new roof and fix other exterior issues like windows and doors. In that case, property taxes on a $150,000 home will increase $3 per month, while taxes on a $500,000 commercial property would increase $20 per month.

For agricultural land, however, property taxes would increase more with the non-voter approved long-term maintenance fund than with Question 1 of the referendum because of Minnesota's Ag2School tax credit.

Approved in 2017, the Ag2School program provides tax relief to farmers in agriculture-rich school districts by crediting them for 40% of the referendum's impact. This credit does not apply to levies, though, meaning agricultural landowners would be responsible for the full cost of a levy increase.

The district recommends those with agricultural property contact Ehlers, a municipal adviser that can help calculate the referendum's tax impact on their land.

Landowner Neal Gaalswyk has already done that for his 600 acres of farmland. With $850,000 worth of agricultural property in the school district, Gaalswyk—who doesn't live in the district himself but owns land and serves as Cass County commissioner for District 1—worked with Ehlers and learned his property taxes would increase about $7 a month if Question 1 passes, and about $9 a month if it fails and the district levies more long-term facilities maintenance funds. If Question 2 passes as well, he said his taxes would increase about $12 a month, making the net increase about $3 a month for the full referendum.

"From a tax perspective, it's so minimal that it's inconsequential when it comes to ag land," he said.

But the taxes aren't the only reason Gaalswyk would like to see the referendum pass. As a former school board member, he understands the district's need for more space, and as a Pillager graduate and parent of Pillager graduates, he understands the school's value.

"It's a great school, and I think that it's going to serve the district well for quite a few years," Gaalswyk said.

Though taxes for most residents would still be lower if the referendum fails, both Malmberg and Bussler want to remind voters what that money would buy.

Referendum failure would mean a tax increase for minimal exterior fixes, while a successful campaign would mean so much more.

"At schools, the main point is to serve the kids in the best possible way that you can," Bussler said. "You can do the fixes to the physical structure, but it has nothing to do with education. The quality of the spaces do not change one bit. ... So the value really is that if it fails, it doesn't nothing for education. If it passes, there's many benefits that are educational."

Open enrollment

With roughly 40% of the students in the Pillager School District open enrolled, Malmberg said he often hears questions about why new facilities should be built for students outside the district, as open enrollment means students who don't live within the district boundaries can still attend school there.

Malmberg has several answers to that question, one of which is that those open enrollment students generate revenue from the state, meaning some of Pillager's programs may not be possible without the increased enrollment.

Another answer is, while new students come into the district, open enrollment also means some Pillager students go to school elsewhere. Malmberg estimates the district loses about 200 kids to open enrollment, though their families still contribute to the Pillager tax base. That means the district would be smaller without open enrollment and operating with less funds.

To curb open enrollment concerns, however, the district put a cap of 105 students per grade. That means, if 105 students are enrolled, no one else can open enroll for that grade. If a new student were to move into the district however, that student would still be able to enroll even if the cap was met.


More information on the referendum is available at Malmberg urges voters to visit the website to learn as much as they can before election day.

"Whether you vote yes or no, if you vote from the information you have and how it affects you, I have no problem with that," Malmberg said. "Make an informed decision. That's the best that I can hope for."

Early voting is open now through May 13 at the district office, 323 E Second St. S, Pillager. Hours are 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays, and 7 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

To request an absentee ballot by mail, visit or call 218-547-7295.

Election day is May 14 at Sylvan Town Hall, 12956 24th Ave. SW, Pillager. Hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters can register at the polls the day of the election. Proof of residency in the school district is required.

Theresa Bourke

I started at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and the Brainerd School District. I follow city and school board officials as they make important decisions for residents and students and decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I look for feature story ideas among those I meet and enjoy, more than anything, helping individuals tell their stories and show what makes them unique.

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