School Referendums Hit Historic High
School districts asking voters to approve more spending than in any spring election in a decade.
On Tuesday, voters in dozens of school districts across the state will determine whether to provide additional resources to children in public schools.
School districts are asking voters to approve nearly $700 million in borrowing for new construction and building updates, and more than $150 million in increases in school district budgets. Those requested amounts are the largest put before voters at the annual spring election going back at least a decade. School districts can hold referendums at any time during the year, but many referendums are scheduled to correspond with regularly-held elections like the annual April election.
Wisconsin’s public schools are funded through a combination of state support and local property taxes. State law limits the degree to which districts can raise property taxes, unless residents vote to approve an increase in school district budgets. In the most recent state budget, lawmakers did not increase the revenue limits for school districts. As a result, many school districts are finding it difficult to absorb rising costs and are asking voters to approve new resources at the ballot box.
With the freeze on revenue limits, referendums have become an important way for districts to make sure they have the resources required to help schoolchildren succeed academically. Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards describes the importance of the referendum option to schools in this Isthmus article this way: “School districts these days more or less live and die by these referendums in terms of their ability to sustain programs and staff.”
The article also includes the perspective of a teacher in the Monona Grove school district, which has asked voters for permission to increase its budget by $13 million over the next five years. Jeremy Wallace, a social studies teacher, says “We really need this referendum to pass; otherwise we are looking at class sizes over 30 at the high school, and outdated technology.”
State lawmakers haven recently taken steps to limit the ability of school districts to pass referendums, holding a hearing on – but in the end not passing – a bill that would ban school districts from sending a referendum to voters for a set period after an earlier referendum, if the first referendum was rejected by voters. (For more information on this bill and other legislative action affecting K-12 schools in Wisconsin, read our update from March 21, 2016: A Summary of Recent Action on Education.)
Schools shouldn’t need to go to referendum to avoid making deep cuts to academic programs. The large referendums on the ballot this election are a sign that the freeze on school district budgets is harming educational opportunities for students.