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School administrators to evaluate Pillager referendum aftermath

With the failed Nov. 7 referendum in the rear-view mirror, Superintendent Mike Malmberg is gearing up for efforts in the spring to connect with community members and find other means to mitigate structural issues in the district. BrainerdDispatch.com Illustration

It's back to the chalk board for Pillager Public Schools.

With the failed Nov. 7 referendum in the rear-view mirror, Superintendent Mike Malmberg is gearing up for efforts in the spring to connect with community members and find other means to mitigate structural issues in the district.

Officials intended the referendum—which residents voted down 61-39 percent—to encapsulate the use of $13.2 million in tax funds to contend with looming maintenance and space issues hampering the school.

The bond included plans for the construction of two early-childhood classrooms, five elementary classrooms, two special education rooms, a music room, as well as a new performing fine arts auditorium and community event center. The initiative also included the enlargement of two current classrooms and two restrooms, and a number of maintenances/repairs for the facility that was built in 1992.

During a phone interview, Malmberg expressed disappointment in the vote result and pointed to a lack of communication between the school district and its community as one issue that stymied the referendum from the onset.

"We tried to get accurate and correct information to people. We held several meetings. People just didn't attend them, it's frustrating," Malmberg said. "Only 40 percent (of eligible citizens) voted. You expect to get a better turnout. You can get a newsletter out, you can get mailings out—but they don't tell the whole story."

It may have been a dicey proposition to begin with. The referendum voters passed in 2010 is still fresh in tax payer's minds and on top of that, Malmberg noted, there were a couple of additional hurdles. First, plans for a performing arts center accounted for a sizable chunk of the initiative—which meant that the district was asking residents to pay for a project that many regarded as unnecessary or an expensive luxury. Second, Malmberg said, recent tax levies by the board may have eroded the community's already tepid support for a new referendum.

While the vote is disheartening, Malmberg said the 39 percent approval rate indicates the needs of the school district still resonate with many residents. It may mean that smaller and more realistic versions of the initiative need to be considered. School administrators are making plans to meet in the coming weeks to address a number of questions—why did the referendum fail, what features appealed to voters and what parts may be salvaged? A survey is scheduled for the spring to get the community's input in the matter.

While the way forward remains murky, Malmberg said, what is certain is the ongoing need to address space and maintenance concerns. With students still using portable classrooms and more enrollment growth on the horizon, he said one way or another the issues in Pillager Public Schools need to be resolved, whatever the vote tally may be.

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