Wisconsin: Public Schools Are Looking To Increase Their Spending Power By A Record $1.9 Billion Via Referendums

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At least fifty different school districts in Wisconsin will be asking voters this autumn to approve tax increases. These school districts are seeking a record $1.9 billion in borrowing and spending power in referendum questions that will appear on ballots throughout the state on November 8.

As of last Friday, voters in 50 school districts throughout the state will be asked their opinions on a total of 70 unique referendum proposals (“Custom Referenda Reporting”) . About half of the inquiries concern the approval to borrow money for construction or upkeep. The remainder may apply for authority to exceed state revenue restrictions on a temporary or continuous basis to pay for education, operations, or personnel. Combined, the referendum questions ask for $1.93 billion.

The Wisconsin Policy Conference’s Ari Brown told Wisconsin Public Radio the next largest sum asked by schools was $1.77 billion in the April 7, 2020 election cycle (Fox), which featured a $1.3 billion, 30-year referendum presented by the Racine Unified School District that succeeded by five votes. The School District of La Crosse in Wisconsin has asked for $194.7 million in borrowing authorization this autumn, the most of any school district in the country, to build a new consolidated high school and make other necessary repairs and modifications to their existing facilities.

A Republican state legislature has frozen district spending by not changing revenue restrictions, according to Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. Therefore, he said, even if legislators boosted general education subsidies by $706 million in the current state budget, money had to go toward cutting property taxes. And thus, as Rossmiller put it, “For most districts, it means their budgets are frozen.” Moreover, “school districts are hard-pressed to fulfill the expectations that they need to recruit and retain people, especially teachers, and pay their other expenses, which are going up with this frozen budget” as a result of inflation and competition from the private sector.

Wisconsin schools got a total of approximately $2.4 billion in federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funding that must be spent by 2024. A May report (“Wisconsin Policy Forum | How Are School Districts Spending Their Federal Relief Funds?”)  from the Policy Forum indicated the majority of that has been spent on educational technology, COVID-19 response, and managing long-term school closures during the epidemic. Rossmiller claims that certain schools in his state get a larger share of the federal funding because they serve a larger proportion of pupils from affluent households. “And even though I believe many lawmakers imagined that school districts would utilize the federal money to sort of tide them over in relation to running issues,” said Rossmiller. “Districts need to be frugal with the federal money they have since it is a one-time grant that will shortly run out.” That merely creates a greater fiscal challenge down the line when the federal money goes away.”

Deputy Superintendent Chad Wiese said it’s “a dangerous venture” to utilize one-time cash to pay for expanded compensation and benefits packages. He said financial restrictions, inflation, and competition for teachers and staff are exactly why the district is asking voters to accept a $19 million recurring referendum. What this implies is that the school board may go over its income cap by that much, but according to Wiese, the district has assured residents it won’t do so in the first year. As a result of negotiations with teachers and other staff in July, he said, the district has agreed to a freeze on cost-of-living raises until the results of the referendum in November. He said if voters rejected the proposal, the district would be faced with serious decisions since 80 percent of the budget goes toward salaries and benefits. As Wiese put it, “all of a sudden factors like class sizes and programming and benefits packages enter into the equation” when trying to strike a yearly budget balance.

In 2017, voters passed a referendum requesting borrowing permission for a new school in Verona. Across Wisconsin, people have been more ready to approve raising their personal property taxes to assist schools in recent years. According to research by the Wisconsin Policy Forum (“Wisconsin Policy Forum | Wisconsin School Referenda Rise above Economy, Politics”), approval ratings increased from roughly 60% in 2000 to over 80% in 2020. But Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said voter acceptance of referendums ebbs and flows with economic situations, particularly when districts want to borrow substantial sums of money for construction projects.


Citations:

“Custom Referenda Reporting.” Custom Referenda Reporting, sfs.dpi.wi.gov, https://sfs.dpi.wi.gov/Referenda/CustomReporting.aspx. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.

Fox, Madeline. “A Near-Record Year For Wisconsin School Referendums As Most Districts Approve New Funding | Wisconsin Public Radio.” Wisconsin Public Radio, http://www.wpr.org, 14 Apr. 2020, http://www.wpr.org/near-record-year-wisconsin-school-referendums-most-districts-approve-new-funding.

“Wisconsin Policy Forum | How Are School Districts Spending Their Federal Relief Funds?” Wisconsin Policy Forum | How Are School Districts Spending Their Federal Relief Funds?, wispolicyforum.org, https://wispolicyforum.org/research/how-are-school-districts-spending-their-federal-relief-funds/#:~:text=Wisconsin%20school%20districts%20were%20allotted,educational%20technology%2C%20and%20remote%20instruction. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.

“Wisconsin Policy Forum | Wisconsin School Referenda Rise above Economy, Politics.” Wisconsin Policy Forum | Wisconsin School Referenda Rise above Economy, Politics, wispolicyforum.org, https://wispolicyforum.org/research/wisconsin-school-referenda-rise-above-economy-politics/. Accessed 29 Aug. 2022.