State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout

Referenda Help Schools Hit by State Cuts

77% of 85 ballot measures asking for more local tax dollars have passed in 2016.

By - Apr 27th, 2016 12:48 pm
School Buses

School Buses

“School districts these days more or less live and die by these referendums in terms of their ability to sustain programs and staff,” Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) recently said as reported by the Isthmus.

So far in 2016, voters approved more than three-quarters of the 85 ballot referenda to raise property taxes to send more local dollars to schools. The nearly 77% pass rate is much higher than a few years ago.

People are voting to raise property taxes to keep their schools alive.

Recently I met with officials from the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to understand school funding trends. I learned there was a big shift in the success of referenda. Prior to 2011 (and the deep school cuts that year) about half of school referenda passed. In the past five years about two-thirds passed.

Historically, communities voted to raise school property taxes to build buildings. Prior to 2011, nearly two-thirds of referenda votes were for the purpose of raising debt for building projects.

After 2011, over half of the votes to raise school property taxes are to fund current educational costs. But there is a limit to how much people can raise their property taxes to pay for current operations.

Back in 2012, the community of Gilmanton raised the school portion of their property taxes by over 40% to keep their beloved school alive. After the vote, many constituents told me “voters will never again” be able to afford such an increase in property taxes.

At a recent legislative breakfast, local school officials pleaded with lawmakers to increase state aid. School officials spoke of local “referenda fatigue” meaning people just can’t afford to raise their property taxes even though they want to keep the school district afloat.

Superintendent Dr. Connie Biedron reviewed the different ways the state cut funds to schools: cuts in state aid, local school districts paying for Milwaukee charter schools, local school districts paying for private school vouchers.

“I’m so grateful people are supporting schools by passing the referendum, but we are facing a continual decline in state funding”, said Dr. Biedron, “Communities can’t continue to tax more. They just can’t support taxing more.”

Prescott is a community that recently voted down a referendum for “existing educational programs and staff”. The February loss means the district is facing cuts of nearly 10% of its budget.

Just over river from Prescott, in Minnesota, voters do not face the same harsh realities of raising property taxes or facing deep cuts to schools.

Minnesota funds about two-thirds of school budgets with state aid. Only 30% comes from local sources like property taxes. Todd Langenfeld, a Prescott resident active in the referenda discussion, told me, “Wisconsin made a commitment to fund schools with two-thirds state funding. But we are well below that.”

The state of Wisconsin contributes about 45% (compared to Minnesota’s 64%) of the cost of schools, while locals contribute almost half.

Mr. Langenfeld continued, “To make up the difference, Prescott goes to referendum. If the state kicked in more, people would pay less in taxes.”

When the state pays less, people face awful choices; raise property taxes just to stay even with the cost of educating children or keep property taxes the same and cut children’s educational opportunities.

For Prescott, state funding this year covers about 53% of students’ costs. But two years ago, the state aid covered about 55% of the school district budget. Given rising costs and the expiration of a “non-recurring” referendum (renewed since 1999), it is not surprising voters faced a hard choice.

Prescott voters will get another opportunity to support their schools on May 25, 2016 when a special election will be held on another referendum. This time voters will be asked to make permanent (or recurring) the expiring referendum.

The immediate lay-off of teachers, cuts in student activities, cancelling bus routes, and closing buildings may be averted with the passage of the May referendum.

However, voters all around the state must solve long-term problems by electing a Legislature willing to tackle the tough questions of how to increase permanently the state share of money for our children’s education.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, is a member of the Wisconsin state Senate.

Categories: Education, Op-Ed, Politics

17 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Referenda Help Schools Hit by State Cuts”

  1. AG says:

    local referrendums are a great way to give direct control over the school budget to those most affected by it. I like the way this is working out. Plus, do they think that money coming from the state appears out of nowhere? It’s still tax money. if you can’t afford it coming out of your property taxes then you can’t afford it coming out of property taxes and your income taxes.

    Side note, why does a district like Gilmanton even exist? 10 students per grade when there is another school district less than 10 minutes away?

  2. SteveM says:

    That’s a pretty typical response from someone who doesn’t live in the immediate area of their scorn. Often times when there are combined services the locals all fight over who gets the admin building. Or look at Ozaukee County, where one district superintendent proposed a merger of three districts in a press conference. The response? A simple headline in the local paper, “Huh?” That was honestly it.

    The “slashing our way to success” doesn’t have much to show for its efforts, except destruction.

  3. Vincent Hanna says:

    ‘The “slashing our way to success” doesn’t have much to show for its efforts, except destruction.’

    Hey man tell that to the people of Kansas which slashed its way to the best economy ever.

  4. AG says:

    Hey, I’m asking the question looking for a real answer. Why do we have teeny tiny districts like that when others are 10 min away? I’m not telling you to merge them… unless there’s a poor reason. One example of a poor reason, political fights over who gets the admin building. That’s a perfect example of government waste.

  5. AG says:

    ‘The “slashing our way to success” doesn’t have much to show for its efforts, except destruction.’

    Sure, just like the districts that throw stupid amounts of money at the district like MPS. That clearly works well too.

  6. Vincent Hanna says:

    Right Kansas is a disaster and then some. I think some schools have to end their year early because they don’t have enough money. But hey kids get a super long summer!

  7. duncan says:

    AG: “Local referrendums are a great way to give direct control over the school budget to those most affected by it. I like the way this is working out.”

    You do know that was already the case, right? How local school board members are elected by .. local voters? How those local school board members’ jobs are to serve their electorate, students, and taxpayers through proper budgeting? And especially, how there’s an annual meeting OF TAXPAYERS who vote to approve the tax levy?

    All the referendums do is circumvent the per student revenue caps and levy rate caps the State has created to wrest local control away from people at the local level. Referendums are the difficult and inefficient escape valve where those local residents can take back the power the state has taken away.

  8. casey says:

    Heres my question that not enough true fiscal conservatives dont ask: if these referendums are being passed, increasing the tax levy, but the tax cuts only amount to $16 a person, and the supposed savings from Act 10 where are all the extra funds going?

  9. AG says:

    Duncan, what you see as “wrestling for control” I see as checks and balances.

    Casey, valid question. The answer is that we didn’t have to raise taxes in the dramatic fashion of Illinois and write IOU’s to vendors and lottery winners, targetted growht industries got tax relief, people going back to school got deductions, educators get a straight $250 deduction for out of pocket expenses (that’s not counting the line item deduction they always got), and many many more tax cuts and property tax relief.

    Besides, most of the referendums are capital projects, even if they also include some temporary operational relief.

  10. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    First the schools were not cut, they ended up better off than before from Walker reforms. Doyle set up everyone to have big cuts but Walker saved us. Last budget they got 300 million plus more, so where was the cut? At end we have more teachers now then when Walker came in and way too many admin staffs.
    Since 1970 school funding has gone up by ten times for 50% less kids, way more than inflation. Way more than my salary. Property taxes have gone from $600 to over $6000. Since my school days, in 50’s, the educats whine all the way to the bank. They whine even more than Trump.

  11. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Since there are 429 districts we must ask why 20% are so poorly run they have to go to referen

  12. Vincent Hanna says:

    Yes why are property taxes higher now than they were in the 1950s? That is outrageous. Great point WCD.

  13. jack says:

    “why are property taxes higher now than they were in the 1950s?”


  14. Vincent Hanna says:

    I was making fun of him.

  15. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Spending on education has gone up way over inflation. it is easy to ee why Milwaukee is one of the worst run cities in nation, worst unemployemtn, worst schools, worst criem fromt he commetn of the eladers on t hsis ite.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us