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3 school district referendums go to vote May 14

The Staples-Motley School District's $60 million referendum will go to a vote Tuesday, May 14. Brainerd Dispatch file photo1 / 3
The Pine River-Backus School District's $15.3 million referendum will go to a vote Tuesday, May 14. Echo Journal file photo2 / 3
The Pillager School District's $14.39 million referendum will go to a vote Tuesday, May 14. Brainerd Dispatch file photo3 / 3

Voters in three area school districts will take to the polls Tuesday, May 14, to decide on multimillion dollar bonding referendums.

Pillager, Pine River-Backus and Staples-Motley school districts are all asking for voter-approved funds to finance facility updates and new auditorium additions.


The Pillager School District seeks about $14.39 million for additional learning spaces, building maintenance and a 350-seat performing arts auditorium.

The ballot will include two questions—one asking for funds to fix building maintenance issues and add classroom and vocational learning spaces, and one requesting money to build the auditorium.

Estimated at just under $8.5 million, Question 1 includes:

• A new roof to replace the more than 25-year-old one that leaks and has caused water damage to floors, walls and equipment throughout the school.

• Replacing mechanical units, insulation and many windows and doors to improve energy efficiency and climate control.

• Five additional elementary school classrooms, a music room, technology room, special education rooms, a new health clerk office and an expanded entrance hallway.

• Updated special education rooms in the middle school and an additional teacher work area to free up classrooms during prep hours.

• Converting the bus garage into a woodworking classroom, giving the metal and auto area more space for updates.

• Three new commercial kitchens for the ProStart culinary program.

• A makerspace flexible classroom in the media center and an online learning lab.

The auditorium in Question 2 is valued at $5.9 million and is contingent on Question 1 passing, meaning if the first question fails, so does the second.

Right now, the district's musical theater program takes place on a small 1940s stage in the elementary school cafeteria, with attendees sitting on folding chairs. The new addition would include space for dressing rooms, better acoustics and temperature control and more seating.

If both referendum questions pass, property taxes on a home valued at $150,000 would increase about $7 a month. A $500,000 commercial property would see an increase of about $26 a month. The tax impact from Question would last 20 years, while that of Question 2 would last 22 years.

If the referendum fails, Superintendent Mike Malmberg said the district will be forced to levy more long term facilities maintenance funds than in past years just to fix the roof. This levy increase would raise taxes on a $150,000 home by about $3 a month and taxes on a $500,000 commercial property by about $20 a month.

A tax calculator is available at Because of Minnesota's Ag2School credit, those with agricultural property should contact Ehlers to calculate their tax impact. Some agricultural land owners may see a tax decrease if Question 1 passes and an increase if the referendum fails.

For more information on Pillager's referendum, visit

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at Sylvan Town Hall, 12956 24th Ave. SW, Pillager. Voters can register at the polls the day of the election with proof of residency in the school district.

Pine River-Backus

In the Pine River-Backus School District, a one-question referendum valued at nearly $15.3 million aims to add classrooms, renovate the high school gym and football field and add a 590-seat auditorium.

Specific projects include:

• Renovate current career and technical education space, add a clean room for computer equipment, and increase the wood and metal shop area by 4,850 square feet.

• Construct an auditorium that would include band and choir practice rooms and a scene shop for career and technical students. Right now, the district uses one of the old gyms—which is shared by athletics and gym classes—for performances and events.

• Renovate band and choir rooms.

• Repair the walls and ceiling of the high school gym and update graphics on the floor.

• Replace and expand concessions, restroom and storage space at the football field. Right now, the school does not have enough equipment storage space to host track meets.

On a home valued at $150,000, property taxes would increase about $8 a month for the next 20 years if the referendum passes.

A business valued at $500,000 would see a monthly increase of about $55 for the same time period.

A tax impact calculator is available at Those with agricultural property in the school district should contact Ehlers to calculate their taxes, as the state's Ag2School credit needs to be taken into account.

For more information on the Pine River-Backus referendum, visit

Polls are open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, at Pine River City Hall, 200 Front St., Pine River. Voters can register at the polls on Election Day with proof of residency in the school district.


With a price tag of nearly $60 million, the two-question Staples-Motley referendum is by far the largest proposed in the area and seeks funds for building renovations and a new activities center.

Question 1 seeks $48.2 million to update the elementary school and combine middle and high school facilities into the current high school building. The middle school in Motley would function as an early childhood facility and may, in the future, be acquired by the city.

Elementary school items in Question 1 include:

• A remodeled office area to improve security.

• Expanded health services area.

• Separate bus and parent drop-off areas.

• Added classrooms for music, art and science, technology, engineering and math.

• New cafeteria, kitchen and receiving areas, as the school does not currently have a designated cafeteria. Students eat in shifts in a multipurpose room.

• New gymnasium with additional locker rooms, while the existing gym is to be repurposed into classrooms and offices.

Changes to the high school building in Question 1, include:

• Remodeled health and student services area.

• Improved visitor sign-in and access.

• Expanded parking.

• Expanded and remodeled technical and trades areas, including new metals and clean labs.

• New six-classroom addition.

• Remodeled classrooms to create new learning spaces and add natural lighting.

• Expanded cafeteria.

• Competition-sized gym with public commons and health and fitness rooms.

• New family and consumer science lab.

• Remodeled and expanded special education rooms.

• Updated performing arts center ceiling with theatrical lighting and acoustics.

Question 2, contingent on Question 1 passing, requests $10.45 million for a Staples-Motley activities center attached to the elementary school. Ideally, the new facility would replace the current Staples Community Center, built in 1974 and nearing the end of its useful life, according to school officials.

The new activities center would include a six-lane swimming pool, multipurpose gymnasium, fitness center, aerobic/cardio exercise room, meeting rooms, catering kitchen and locker room. The facility would accommodate community members outside of the school, giving them access to the elementary school kitchen, cafeteria and additional gym and locker room spaces for events.

If Question 2 passes, Lakewood Health System has promised to contribute $1.5 million for a walking track in all three of the gyms at the elementary school, middle/high school and activities center.

If both questions pass, a home valued at $125,000 would see a monthly property tax increase of roughly $25.86 for the next 25 years.

From a business perspective, both questions passing would trigger an increase of about $142 per month for a business valued at $310,000.

If the referendum fails, the district will use nonvoter-approved money through long-term facility maintenance revenue, as allowed by state statute, to repair school buildings.

A tax impact calculator is available at For more referendum information, visit

Polls are open noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 14. Voters should visit to determine their polling place. Registration is available at the polls on Election Day with proof of residency in the school district.

The PineandLakes Echo Journal contributed to the story.

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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