Across Wisconsin, school referendums for basic budget expenses hit 10-year high

VERONA, Wis. — In the Verona Area School District, more than 900 staff members are working this school year without a cost of living raise. A $19 million referendum on the ballot this November will ask voters for the money to help fund an inflation-matching 4.7% increase for them among other expenses — a trend of operational referendums increasing in Wisconsin and hitting a decade-high this year.

Nine school districts in Dane County will ask voters this November to increase their funding, several of them in the form of revenue cap-stretching agreements to cover basic budget expenses rather than debt referendums that ask voters to fund capital projects like new facilities and extra services.

Between the spring and fall elections in 2022, that number across the state has risen to 92 referendums this year that specifically seek to raise their state-mandated revenue caps, rather than increase their debt for capital projects. (A state database lists a total of 166 school referendums this year when debt & capital project referendums are factored in, another decade-high.)

“In the last two-year [state] budget cycle, we got zero new dollars per student,” VASD deputy superintendent Chad Wiese explained. “That’s the money most school districts use to budget for recurring expenses into the future.”

While Verona was able to use an unusual financing structure to guarantee local voters that the referendum wouldn’t result in a direct property tax increase, for most taxpayers, approving local school referendums will mean more tax dollars out of their pockets.

It’s a trend specific to a combination of factors this year, Wiese explained, including record inflation and a highly-competitive labor market for qualified educators.

“What happened in some ways was a perfect storm out of this last two-year budget cycle,” Wiese said. “In-state lawmakers decided to have school districts make tough budget decisions with one-time (federal Covid) funding, and certainly didn’t see record-high inflation coming for the next two years when they passed that two-year budget.”

Statewide, dozens of districts seek additional funding for basic budget expenses

Across Wisconsin, school districts will have 81 referendums in total on the ballot this November seeking additional funding for either capital projects or budgetary expenses, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. (Some districts have multiple referendums, one for capital projects and another to cover recurring expenses.) That comes after 82 referendums on ballots in this spring’s elections, where voters gave a greenlight to 66 of them.

Roughly half of the referendum this fall aren’t slated for capital projects like new facilities or extra services: they’re asking voters to allow them to exceed their state-set revenue cap either once or on a recurring basis to cover basic operational expenses like staff salaries and maintenance costs.

Republican lawmakers didn’t adjust revenue limits in the latest biennial budgets while increasing general school aid by 706 million, which means frozen budgets for many school districts. Lawmakers at the time cited millions in one-time federal Covid funds sent to schools from the federal government, but many districts say they won’t use one-time funds on longterm operational expenses to avoid a future fiscal cliff.

In May, the Wisconsin Policy Forum released a report finding many districts used those funds to target immediate pandemic needs like remote instruction and technology; some, however, have later used those funds to cover operational expenses.

“Our community is as good as our public schools,” Wiese said, referencing how 80% of the district budget goes to staffing costs. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the school districts that aren’t doing it this fall will be doing it in the near future when that one-time federal funding runs out.”

In her state of education address last week, state superintendent blasted the legislature for sitting on a project $6 billion revenue surplus while schools continue to go to referendum to keep their doors open.

“This legislature is sitting on a surplus,” she said. “If this legislature spent one-sixth of the current taxpayer funded budget surplus on schools, it could make such a difference.”

Resources

List of all school districts going to referendum this November

List of all Dane County school districts going to referendum this November