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Wisconsin school districts place 99 referendum questions on spring ballots

About a quarter of the state's school districts currently get 10% or more of their funding from operational referenda.

Wisconsin school districts place 99 referendum questions on spring ballots

Source: Canva

February 1, 2024 3:44 PM CDT
By: Jimmie Kaska

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WISCONSIN (Civic Media) – The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction reports that school districts have placed 99 referendum questions on spring ballots.

10 of the questions will be on February 20 primary ballots, while the other 89 will be on April 2 Spring Election ballots.

Nine districts are asking two questions, while a total of 90 of Wisconsin’s 421 districts seeking additional funding for operations or capital projects.

The 99 total questions this spring exceed last spring’s total of 83, of which 46 were passed by voters. 166 total questions were asked by districts in 2022, with 135 passing, according to the DPI, the most referendum questions asked by school districts in one calendar year. 2022’s numbers nearly exceeded 2020 and 2021 combined.

65 of the questions posed to voters are for operating expenses. 2022 saw a record 92 such questions on ballots between four elections; 2024 is on pace to break that mark.

The DPI says that 100 of the state’s 421 districts get at least 10% of their revenue limit from non-recurring operational referendum, with the number expected to grow in the next fiscal year. Last year, there were only 80 districts at that threshold, and 10 years ago, just 36 districts were north of the 10% mark. 14 districts get at least a quarter of their funding from referenda.

Since the option to ask to exceed revenue limits was given to districts in the 1990’s, 357, or 85%, of districts have tried for an operational referendum. 20% of the state’s district have used operational referendum questions six times or more. All time, voters have approved 877 of 1,513 operating referenda, or 58%, according to data from the DPI.

Two factors are contributing to the increase in referenda. Funding for public education largely comes from state aid and local property taxes, which are capped by statute. The state provides nearly half of the funding for education. However, state aid hasn’t kept up with inflation.

The other factor, one that members of the state legislature point to in response to efforts to increase public education funding, is that around two-thirds of Wisconsin school districts are declining in enrollment. The impact is particularly notable at rural districts, where there is less room to cut expenses since most of the district’s costs to operate are tied to facilities and a required number of staff.

All told, operational referendum funding currently makes up over 5% of total education funding in Wisconsin, according to DPI data.

To see which districts are asking a referendum question in either February or April of 2024, you can visit the DPI website. You can see all past referenda results on the DPI’s website.