Pillager Public Schools: District officials working on revised referendum plan

After receiving feedback on why voters opposed a $13.2 million referendum in November 2017, Pillager School District officials are working diligently on a plan they hope will garner approval next year.

Students leave Pillager School at the end of the day in a file photo from March 2018. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Students leave Pillager School at the end of the day in a file photo from March 2018. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

After receiving feedback on why voters opposed a $13.2 million referendum in November 2017, Pillager School District officials are working diligently on a plan they hope will garner approval next year.

About 61 percent of voters casted ballots against the 2017 referendum aiming to add more early childhood and elementary classrooms, tend to facilities' maintenance needs and build a 500-seat auditorium. A district-wide survey this fall garnering 522 responses shed light on why residents voted the way they did.

"A large percentage of people basically said 'revise the plan and come back sooner rather than later,'" Pillager Superintendent Mike Malmberg said of the survey.

Malmberg is working with school board members and district administrators to do just that. They came together for a workshop Nov. 12 to analyze survey results and decide how to propose a plan voters would be likely to approve.

About the survey


About 81 percent of survey respondents-more than 400-were district residents. Malmberg said representatives from the survey company School Perceptions told him once 400 responses are received, percentages don't tend to change a lot. That means the survey responses should portray an accurate representation of district voters.

The rest of respondents were employees living in other districts or parents who open enroll their children. These respondents just answered questions about overall satisfaction with the district.

Of residents surveyed who voted "no," 76 percent said they felt the cost was too high, and 72 percent said they did not support the performing arts auditorium. From that data, Malmberg-in a phone interview after the workshop-said district officials learned the key to a successful referendum may be breaking issues down into two questions to lower costs and give voters more options.

The first question on a new referendum will likely deal with facility maintenance issues and additional classroom spaces. The three main areas it will deal with are: needed updates to the 1992 addition at the middle school, an expansion of vocational programming space and elementary classroom additions. Vocational programs include hands-on learning classes like culinary arts, construction, welding, small engine repair and hospitality management.

Facilities maintenance

Maintenance needs include replacing the building's exit doors, windows and roof sections, as well as repairing the brick exterior and updating the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Malmberg said the maintenance piece of the referendum had "very good" support, with voters ranking it as their No. 1 priority. The estimated cost for maintenance services is up to $2 million.

Vocational classes

More space is needed for the district's vocational classes, Malmberg said, because programs have grown steadily in recent years, but the space has not.


"We hadn't really done anything with improvement of our vocational spaces since 1970," he said. "And obviously we've grown, and the need for those vocational spaces has increased."

The survey showed respondents to be supportive of this expansion, ranking it as their No. 2 priority. The estimated cost for a vocational programming expansion and any new equipment that might be needed for those classes is up to $1.5 million.

Elementary additions

With district enrollment having increased by more than 300 students in the last six years because of open enrollment, the elementary school is 140 students over capacity, meaning the school must take other spaces, like hallways and storage spaces, for classroom use. Though students who attend Pillager through open enrollment generate additional funding for the district, because of space needs, Malmberg said the district will stop taking open enrollment students in any elementary grade that reaches 105 students.

An elementary addition could include extra general education classrooms and dedicated music and technology rooms.

While survey respondents generally supported elementary additions, Malmberg said they were reluctant to approve a plan with more early childhood and family education space, which was included in last year's referendum. The district rents some of the rooms in its early childhood space to the Pillager Family Center for its programming, which Malmberg said might have been a factor in the low support.

"The perception, I think, from some of our community members is that we should just take those rooms back for our use," he said, noting the issue can be complicated because some residents don't realize the family center helps provide mandated early childhood and special education programming to the district.

The original estimated cost for both early childhood and elementary additions was up to $6.2 million, but because most survey respondents said they would support a $6-7 million referendum, Malmberg said the district will eliminate the early childhood piece and is working with Widseth Smith Nolting to restructure the elementary addition to keep costs down.


Ideally, the price tag for the new referendum's first question will hit that $6-7 million range.

Performing arts

The second question on a new referendum would deal solely with the construction of a 350-seat auditorium.

Right now, the district does not have a dedicated performing arts space. Many large-group events are hosted in the elementary school cafeteria, which has a stage dating back to the 1940s and Malmberg said lacks adequate seating, lighting and storage capacity.

Though many survey respondents cited the 500-seat auditorium as a reason for opposing last year's referendum, Malmberg said there is enough community support to offer a 350-seat complex as an additional question. The smaller auditorium would cost about $5 million, or roughly $1 million less than the larger option.

"I think there's a lot of support for the need by the survey and residents, but the support maybe isn't there dollarwise," Malmberg said. "But the board felt that we had quite a few people that also stated on the survey that they wanted to see the auditorium as well and they would not support anything if it did not have a piece of that."

What's next?

Malmberg said school board members and district officials now need to talk to vocational class staff to see what kind of equipment they need and to continue to work on restructuring elementary classrooms to add the needed space for a lower cost than originally estimated. They will have another work session in December to discuss those issues, as well as timelines-whether a May or November 2019 vote would be best.

"There's some advantages to doing May bidding-wise," Malmberg said. "But there's disadvantages. You've got to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time."

District officials will also discuss how to move forward in terms of communicating with residents and look at whether creating specialized committees or task forces would be worthwhile.

Related Topics: PILLAGER
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
What To Read Next
Inmates in-custody in the Todd County jail in Long Prairie, Minnesota
Inmates in-custody in the Wadena County jail in Wadena, Minnesota
Inmates in-custody in the Aitkin County jail in Aitkin, Minnesota
Inmates in-custody in the Beltrami County jail in Bemidji, Minnesota