Referendum votes can mean job, program losses for school districts

Four area schools include referendum on ballot Tuesday

It’s two completely different scenarios at the ballot box, both with strong implications for kids in the classroom – the referendum vote.

For some school districts, a failed referendum can often mean dozens of lost jobs while a successful one could provide just enough money to keep a district afloat. Four area schools face a referendum vote Tuesday. On those ballots you’ll find everything from a request for a new building to a request simply for enough money to keep operating at the same level. Onalaska held an operating referendum last February that passed successfully – but directors there have experienced both that high of a successful request, and the low of a failed vote.

Onalaska, like 80 percent of Wisconsin’s public schools, has had its fair share of operating referendums. Residents approved the latest one just last month – for this district, that meant saving more than just a handful of teachers’ jobs.

“The loss of that, we projected, could mean up to 50 positions that would have had to be reduced,” said Larry Dalton, director of finance for the Onalaska School District.

Onalaska hasn’t always been so lucky – the district lost an operating referendum back in 2002, forcing educators to cut more than $1 million from their schools, including 22 job cuts. The impact of that can still be seen today.

“Twelve years later, we grieve the loss of international language starting at the elementary school, and we still don’t have that back,” Dalton said.

Health classes, as well as orchestra, were cut at the elementary level, as well. The district also began requiring fees for extracurricular activities that year to help with the loss of money. These are losses that directors say nearly every Wisconsin school will feel, as referendums become the new normal.

“There’s always going to be an impact, there’s always going to be some programming, some opportunity or choices that won’t be there for students,” Dalton said.

Onalaska knows all too well how the consequences of both referendum scenarios can play out – and directors there suggest voters know, too, before making their final decision Tuesday.

“It’s extremely important to not vote casually but learn what the issues are, what the impact of the loss and the passage would be, and to vote,” Dalton said.