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View from around the state: Keep school referendum decisions local

In the April election, 40 of 65 school referendums statewide passed as voters approved $464.7 million in building projects and $235 million for operating expenses.

In northeastern Wisconsin, voters in the Green Bay, Denmark, Seymour, Oconto Falls and Washington Island school districts approved school referendums, while voters in the Howard-Suamico, Bonduel and Southern Door districts defeated theirs.

The decisions, though, were made by the voters in those school districts. Not by legislators in Madison or lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Not by the governor or the president. Those whose taxes would be affected had the opportunity to vote “yes” or “no” — an example of democracy at its most basic level. An excellent example of local control.

However, some Republican legislators, led by Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Cedarburg, want to wrest some of that local control away from school districts with a series of proposals that would discourage, punish and limit schools from going to referendum.

Among proposals that Stroebel has a hand in is one that would eliminate recurring referendums, which basically raise operating taxes indefinitely.

We believe voters can judge for themselves on this issue. Look at the Howard-Suamico School District, where 70 percent of the voters trounced a referendum to permanently exceed state revenue limits by $4 million a year. Perhaps the outcome would have been different had there been a five- or 10-year limit on it.

Another proposal is punitive, reducing state aid for districts that use a referendum to exceed revenue limits. The money they would lose would be redistributed to other districts. This type of petulant legislating fails to take into account how school districts differ. The needs of a rural school district facing declining enrollment are different from those of a property rich district. Also, if your district held the lid on spending when revenue limits were imposed, they’ve likely lagged behind their peers in state aid. Plus, going to referendum was the route schools were told to take when revenue limits were imposed.

One of the proposals would limit referendums to spring or fall general elections. We agree with the sentiment of this bill. School boards should schedule referendum votes that coincide with general elections, because there will be higher turnout and because the school district must pay the cost of special elections.

Again, though, it should be up to the school board and district voters, not to legislators in the state Capitol.

Another proposal limits when school boards can decide to go to referendum, confining it to a regularly scheduled board meeting for an operating referendum and the annual meeting for a debt issue. We believe school boards are fully capable of giving voters enough notice without it being state law.

The Green Bay School Board did an excellent job of letting the public know that it was interested in putting a school referendum on the April ballot. It discussed the matter with the public for over a month, adjusting what the details of the referendum before the School Board approved it. There was no surprise, middle-of-the-night vote, which is not something the Legislature can claim.

Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, co-authored a proposal that would require districts to disclose the debt service and interest payments on any debt issue. Again, we agree with the sentiment. Voters should know what they’re on the hook for in future payments. However, does the Legislature need to dictate this?

This isn’t the first time Stroebel has attempted to take away local control.

It likely won’t be the last.

As we have in the past, we believe local school boards and district voters should decide these issues. If the voters in a school district are willing to fund a new building with borrowing or increase operating expenses, they should have that ability. If a referendum fails, the school district has to live with that decision.

Whatever the referendum outcome, the decisions should be made in the school district, not the State Capitol.

— From the Green Bay Press-Gazette

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