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Pillager Schools: Voters approve both referendum questions

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Dave Rasinski votes Tuesday, May 14, in the Pillager school referendum at Sylvan Township Hall. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 2 / 3
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It was close, but it's a 'yes.' Two, actually.

Voters approved the Pillager School District's $14.39 million bonding referendum Tuesday, May 14, with 64% in support of the maintenance portion in Question 1, and about 53% approving the 350-seat performing arts center in Question 2.

Superintendent Mike Malmberg can now sit back and take a deep breath.

"I'm excited for our students and our staff and our community. I think it's going to be an exciting time for us here in the next few years," he said Tuesday night. "I'm just excited."

Question 1—asking for funds to fix building maintenance issues and add classroom and vocational programming space—garnered 808 "yes" votes out of 1,260 voters casting ballots.

With the $8.5 million, the district will:

• Replace most of the building's 25-year-old roof, which leaks and has caused water damage to floors, walls and equipment throughout the school.

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

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

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

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

• Add three commercial kitchens for the ProStart culinary program.

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

A margin of 68 votes pushed the $5.9 million performing arts center through in Question 2. The space will be used for both the district's high school and middle school musical theater programs and any other classes or school programs needing the space.

Apart from the school, Malmberg envisions the performing arts center becoming a community staple, with availability for concerts and other traveling musician performances, dance recitals, meetings, political caucuses or any other large events.

"I think it enhances the quality of life of our community," Malmberg said during an interview earlier in May, noting Pillager does not have a comparable space right now.

Tax impact

The successful referendum means a property tax increase for residents, but that would have happened no matter what.

Had the measure failed, Malmberg said the district would have been forced to levy more non-voter-approved long term facilities maintenance funds, still raising property taxes for several years, but likely fixing only the building's roof.

With the passed referendum, residents with homes valued at $150,000 will see a roughly $7 a month increase. The $4 a month impact from Question 1 will last 20 years, with the $3 from Question 2 lasting 22 years.

For a commercial property valued at $500,000, taxes will increase about $44 a month—$26 from Question 1 for the next 20 years, and $18 from Question 2 for 22 years.

Voter turnout

Just over one-third, or 35%, of registered voters participated in the election Tuesday, with 394 voting via absentee ballots. Cass County Elections Administrator Sharon Anderson said that's pretty typical—if not a bit high—for a non-November election, with percentages usually in the 25-30% range.

Looking to the future

With a failed referendum in 2017, Malmberg said it's been a long journey since beginning preparation for the first vote three and a half years ago, with a lot of behind the scenes work most people don't always see.

"A lot of meetings, a lot of conversations," he said. "And I'm thankful for a really good, great school board who really does have their heart in the right place. They're in it for the right reasons. They're in it for kids and students and staff and it's been a pleasure to work with them for our students and our staff."

Malmberg is also thankful for those who supported the plan Tuesday and hopes, with time, those who voted 'no' will realize the value of the new facilities.

"That's our goal," he said, "that two years from now everybody sits back ... and looks back on this day and says, 'This was a good night for Pillager.'"

Election day reactions

Voters steadily trickled through Sylvan Town Hall throughout the day, according to head election judge Marla Yoho.

Nearly 400 voters had been through as of 2 p.m.

"We, of course, don't have any idea of which way people are thinking," she said, "but we know that there's a lot of interest, and a lot of people care deeply whether we have it or don't have it."

Most voters passing through the polling place were reluctant to speak with Brainerd Dispatch, but district resident Jane Vogt was fairly confident the measure would pass. She was, however, a little leary of the of the tax impact.

"My concern is there's just so many open enrolled students in Pillager, so the Pillager taxpayers pay for open enrolled students, and I think it's a different perspective when you have kids or grandkids in the district," Vogt said, noting her property taxes already increased last year without a referendum.

Malmberg said earlier in the afternoon he was confident administrators did as much as they could to get all the correct information into voters' hands. Either way, he said, Pillager will still have a great school with great students walking down the hallways.

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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