Wisconsin school referendums may influence state budget debate

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Voter approval rates this year for Wisconsin school district fiscal referendums fell short of last year’s record levels.

Voters still approved the vast majority, which could pressure state lawmakers to bolster aid as a means to hold property tax hikes in check, says the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Voters approved 45 questions on the ballot this year, permitting $783 million of either borrowing or authority to exceed revenue caps, from among 60 questions totaling $1.2 billion, according to preliminary results reviewed by the forum.

All but one appeared on the April 2 ballot.

The approval rate of 75% is the third highest since revenue caps were established in 1992, but it trails the 90% rate from last year and a 79% rate in 2016. The 90% approval rate last year included both the spring and fall ballots and totaled $2 billion.

The referendums are done for 2019, as state law limits school districts to holding referendum only during regularly scheduled statewide elections, all of which were held this spring.

“In recent years, Wisconsin voters have approved school district spending referenda in record numbers. Results for this spring’s vote still show support for many of these proposals — particularly for operating expenses — but some big-ticket items were rejected,” the forum wrote in a special report authored by Jeffrey Schmidt and published last week.

Notably, four of the top 10 bond referendums failed. The largest, from Sun Prairie Area School District for $164 million, passed.

Neenah School District’s request for $129.6 million in bonding capacity failed. It was the second highest. DeForest Area School District’s $125 million request passed. All remaining bond referendums were for less than $100 million.

“This year’s referenda results may offer some additional insights into voters’ moods,” the forum said.

Voters rejected 10 of the 26 bond proposals, for an approval rate of 62%.

“Borrowing for construction and repair projects tends to follow certain patterns such as economic cycles, enrollment increases, the condition of buildings, and, to some extent, favorable interest rates. Although enrollments are declining across the state, many buildings are aging,” the report said. “Interest rates are also relatively low at present and the state continues to benefit from a growing economy, which may make voters more willing to raise taxes.”

Revenue cap requests fared better with six of the seven referendums seeking to exceed caps on an ongoing or recurring basis passing, for an 86% approval rate, while 23 of 27 districts, an approval rate of 85%, won authorization to exceed caps on a non-recurring basis. The recurring approval totals $10 million in revenue and non-recurring $112 million.

Voters rejected a revenue question posed by the Palmyra-Eagle School District, which warned it could be forced to ask the state to dissolve without the funds.

The forum expects the results to factor into the debate now underway at the state capitol on a new two-year budget.

First-year Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has proposed a $1.4 billion hike in kindergarten through 12th grade funding. Evers also wants to permit districts to increase per pupil spending by $200 million in the first year of the new budget that begins July 1 and $204 million in the second year.

GOP lawmakers, who control both houses of the legislature, have pushed back on Evers’ various tax and spending proposals.

On education, the GOP has suggested a more modest boost is affordable with the additional funding going to targeted areas. Republican lawmakers are crafting their own version of the two-year budget.

“Lawmakers may feel some additional pressure to provide more aid to schools to hold down property tax increases resulting from referenda,” the forum's report said. “Once the budget is adopted later this year, one test of whether taxpayers and schools believe they have sufficient funding going forward may be the number, dollar amount, and voter approval rates of referenda in 2020.”

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School bonds Bond elections State budgets Wisconsin