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Educators: referendums likely to continue in future

Referendums Become the New Normal

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - If you take a look at spring ballots in cities across the region, chances are you'll find a school referendum question.

School districts like La Crosse, Onalaska and Tomah are asking their residents to approve more money this year through an operating referendum, and many educators say this trend of referendums is nowhere near its end.

"Our new normal is that most districts are asking for more money through referenda," said Larry Dalton, director of finance for the Onalaska School District.

Operating referendums are the state-mandated way for school districts to raise more revenue – which means if a district wants to raise taxes above a certain point, it has to ask taxpayers first on the ballot. Nearly 80 percent of Wisconsin's schools have asked for more money through an operating referendum in the past. Onalaska and La Crosse have asked for three in just the past decade. That's largely a result of legislation passed back in 1993 that requires schools to ask their taxpayers for more funding through a referendum vote.

This seemingly endless barrage of referendums weren't always the norm. Dick Swantz, superintendent for La Crosse School District in the 70s and 80s, remembers a time where school funding was a little less political.

"In many ways it was simpler," he reminisces.

Schools follow a revenue limit set by the state that doesn't allow them to collect property taxes above a certain amount. If schools want more money, they must ask residents through the referendum.

"The only thing that can change is that some new school finance rules are put into place in Madison," Dalton said.

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