Wisconsin voters to field 65 school district requests

March 26, 2017

MADISON - The push by Wisconsin public schools to ask for more money from local property taxpayers isn't stopping, with 65 referendums going before voters in the spring election.

That comes after 122 were approved in 2016, the continuation of a trend that began three or four years ago as schools struggled to make ends meet under state-imposed spending limits, budget tightening and changing student populations with a growing range of needs.

Around 80 percent of school referendums passed last year and voters approved $1.35 billion in new borrowing, the largest amount in two decades when adjusted for inflation, according to data from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

"It's a reflection of the consistent declining revenues from the state schools are facing," said Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators.

Though Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal would boost funding for K-12 schools by $649 million over the next two years, advocates say more is needed to avoid cutting staff or class offerings.

"We're very supportive of the governor's budget," said John Forester, a lobbyist for the School Administrators Alliance. "But for a bunch of school districts out there, it's not going to solve all of their fiscal issues."

About half of the districts will ask voters on April 4 to sign off on new debt while the other half want permission to exceed revenue caps, which prevent districts from spending more than they get from property taxes and state aid. Because enrollment numbers factor into state aid calculations, school districts with declining numbers of students tend to hold referendums to exceed revenue limits. Those asking to borrow are more often located in growing areas and want the money to build more space.

"In 2016 and early 2017, we will have had $2 billion or more of debt questions, which is an incredible spike," said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. He attributes it to voters' increased appetite for referendums and the fact that many districts are retiring debt they used in the late 1990s on buildings now overdue for updates.

The biggest ask next month will come from the school district of Verona, a Madison suburb. The district wants to borrow $162.5 million to fund projects including a new swimming pool, more athletic fields and a new high school.

The population in Verona has been booming thanks to Epic Systems, the ever-growing health care software company that employs close to 10,000 people.

Burlington, a city west of Racine, wants to borrow $94.4 million to build a new middle school and a performing arts center and expand the high school's athletic facilities.

Unlike debt referendums, revenue limit referendums come with a property tax increase unless the school is eliminating spending elsewhere.

West Allis Superintendent Marty Lexmond said his district hopes that by raising the revenue cap it can avoid eliminating music lessons, downsizing its athletic program and increasing class sizes, among other changes. The district has spent down its reserve and is projected to lose 200 students next year. It estimates an extra $12.5 million in funding over the next five years will increase residents' annual property taxes by $58 for every $100,000.

Green Bay Area Public School District will hold its first revenue limit referendum to deal with a projected $18 million funding deficit that could cost the district 150 jobs, spokeswoman Lori Blakely said. But Blakely notes it would not raise residents' property taxes because it coincides with decreased debt payments.

"We're in kind of new territory," Blakely said. She said she's not sure what to expect from voters but hopes they'll recognize a need.

Green Bay will also ask voters to sign off on new debt of $68.5 million to rebuild an elementary school the district has outgrown and fund upgrades including more secure entrances.

Districts acknowledge Walker's proposal to boost K-12 school funding by almost $650 million in his 2018-2019 budget is welcome news and Republican leaders in the Legislature have signaled support for making it happen. Democrats have argued the increase is an about-face after Walker cut $1 billion from schools since taking office in 2011.

Whatever the final budget includes, Bales, of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, warns the referendums will continue.

"The governor's proposal may help some districts," he said. "But you'll still see a number of them continue to hold referendums to try to close the gap."


Associated Press