New bills put restrictions on school district referendums

A Republican-authored bill is being proposed in Madison to limit how often a school district could go to referendum.

Those in favor of the bill say changes are a benefit to taxpayers, opponents argue its another handcuff to local school districts.

Republican lawmakers want to require school districts to only go to referendum during the traditional spring and fall elections. If a district’s referendum fails, that district could not go back to voters with another referendum for two years.

West Salem superintendent Troy Gunderson said November and April elections are the best time to go to referendum for a district because that’s when voter turnout is highest.

“The higher the turnout, generally, the more likely you are to pass this, not the other way around,” Gunderson said.

So he doesn’t see much of an issue with a proposed bill that would only allow districts to hold referendum votes in those two months.

But Gunderson said the two-year waiting period after a failed referendum, which is what the bill would require, could be a major problem for some districts.

“It’s a pretty dangerous approach to this because there are a number of school districts across the state who are considerably over their revenue limit and then a failure and being forced to wait two years before you could go again would really cripple that place,” Gunderson said.

Republican lawmakers believe the bill will help lower property taxes, keep voters from being worn down by multiple referendum elections and prevent special elections.

Democrat Sen. Jennifer Shilling said this bill is yet another “attack” on public education funding in Wisconsin.

“This legislation that the Republicans are introducing will really tie the hands of our local school boards and local schools,” Shilling said.

With state funding for public schools staying flat, if this bill were to pass, Gunderson said districts may be forced to try new ways of exceeding the revenue limit.

“I think what you might see if something like this comes to pass, a different strategy, meaning ‘We’ll pass a referendum that will allow us to go over for five years, and then at the beginning of the third year we’ll run another referendum saying, ‘three years from now, can we go over again?” and if that fails, then you’ll be able to go back and say, ‘Next year can we go over again?’ they won’t wait til the end,” Gunderson said.

Rep. Duey Strobel, co-author on this bill, released this statement: “Representative Schraa and my bill seeks to encourage more participation in the school referenda process. By ensuring the referenda questions occur on general elections, more of the voting population will be tuned into the process. Frequently, following a failed try districts will ask referenda questions with a lower dollar amount. This bill requires the voters’ decision to last for two years. With higher voter participation and a cool down period, schools must have a transparent discussion on the need to raise taxes.”

In addition to this, lawmakers have introduced another bill that would ban school districts from exceeding their revenue limit to pay for an energy efficient project.

Co-author of the bill, Rep. Adam Neylon, released this statement to News 8: One reason property taxes in Wisconsin are so high is that school boards can exceed revenue caps for energy efficiency projects. I think it helps to understand that before understanding this bill. School boards can use this exemption to raise property taxes without sufficient oversight from those that pay the property tax bill. In the last 12 months, 59 school districts have adopted energy efficiency exemptions. Those new resolutions have increased local property taxes by nearly $30 million. Lawmakers cannot seriously reduce property taxes when school boards routinely exceed their revenue limits.”

Shilling doesn’t expect discussion on either bill in this session, most likely not until the January session.