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Over half of school referendums pass in Spring Election

School districts sought nearly $1.5 billion in additional local taxes to fund facility projects and pay for operations.

Over half of school referendums pass in Spring Election

Source: Jimmie Kaska | Civic Media

April 3, 2024 2:04 AM CDT
By: Jimmie Kaska

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WISCONSIN (Civic Media) – Over half of referendums on the Spring Election ballot in Wisconsin passed on Tuesday.

93 total school referendum questions were asked of voters, with a slightly better result than the last two elections in terms of passage.

57 of 93 referendums passed, according to unofficial vote totals provided by county clerks and school districts around Wisconsin. The largest, a $252 million recurring referendum for Milwaukee School District, passed 51% to 49%.

Results will become official after canvassing.

Districts were seeking over $1.45 billion in additional funding for facilities projects and school operations. About two-thirds of the referendum questions were to fund services and staff.

Jill Underly, the state’s superintendent, said that the sheer number of referendums on the ballot are proof that public education is underfunded in Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin communities value our public schools and the future of our kids, but they are being put in an impossible position,” Underly said. “Voters are making the difficult decision whether to raise their own taxes just so their public schools can survive.”

Pockets of the state saw higher rates of voter rejection of the measures. 13 of the failed questions happened in southwestern and south-central Wisconsin. A run of four neighboring districts along Highway 29 in west-central Wisconsin – Cadott, Stanley-Boyd, Thorp, and Owen-Withee – all had their questions fail in lopsided votes.

The largest facility project in the state that was approved belongs to the New Richmond School District. Voters there approved by a 58%-42% margin a $113.7 million debt referendum to add on to its elementary and middle schools. However, voters in Mukwonago turned down a $102.3 million referendum to build a new middle school and renovate an elementary school for 4K classrooms.

The closest margins for referendums on Tuesday were in the double-digits. Richland School District voters approved a $27 million referendum by just 12 votes. Voters in Bristol #1 School District in southeastern Wisconsin defeated a measure for a 2-year recurring referendum by 10 votes.

All told, 70 of 103 ballot questions this spring, including the Spring Primary, were for recurring or non-recurring operational questions. The remaining 34 are issue debt questions, which are asked when school districts seek a larger, one-time fund to build or renovate facilities.

For the 34 facility projects, districts sought nearly $1 billion in additional local taxpayer money to update their campuses – a total of $988,585,000, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction.

The large number of questions on the ballot this spring means that Wisconsin has a chance of exceeding the record 166 referendum questions asked in 2022, of which 135 passed. That’s because Wisconsin still has an August primary and November election for schools to place ballot measures.

All told, between both the spring primary and spring election in 2024, districts sought $1.67 billion in additional local taxes to pay for school services, teachers, and facilities.

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 through 2023, 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.

Another factor unique to this year is the expiration of COVID-19 funding from the federal government. The program, called ESSER, called for all funds to be spent by the end of the current fiscal year.

To see which districts asked a referendum question in the spring of 2024, you can visit the DPI website. You can see all past referenda results on the DPI’s website.

Eds. note: This story was updated with information from all 93 school referendums.

CORRECTION: This story was updated with information provided from Iron County on official/canvassed vote totals in the Mercer School District. The number of Spring referendums passing is 57, not 56 as originally published.

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