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Report: School referendums approved break records in 2018 (UPDATE)

School referendums approved by voters in Wisconsin this year broke records for the total amount and percentage passed.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum found in a report on Tuesday that 90 percent of the referendum questions that appeared on ballots this year were approved. That brought the total amount of spending allowed at the ballot to more than $2 billion. Voters rejected only $160 million worth of proposed school spending.

The previous record for the highest amount of spending approved — nearly $1.8 billion — was set in 2016.

The bulk of referendums on ballots this year sought voters’ permission to raise money for construction projects. Of the construction-related referendums on the ballot this fall, voters approved more than $1.2 billion worth of spending. That came on top of the $648.1 million of construction-related spending voters approved in referendums in April.

Taking into account referendums used both for construction projects and other purposes, the Wisconsin Policy Forum found there were 82 questions on the November ballot seeking voters’ permission for more than $1.4 billion worth of debt and revenue increases. The proposals, put forward by 61 school districts throughout the state, were approved at a rate of 94 percent, authorizing nearly $1.4 billion worth of spending.

Of those 82 questions, 50 sought voters’ permission to embark on school construction projects. Nearly half of them sought permission for projects worth $20 million or more, according to a JobTrac analysis. Just two of these construction-related referendum questions failed: a $36.8 million request from Viroqua Area Schools; and a $4.4 million proposal from the Wittenberg-Birnamwood School District, although voters there passed a $13.1 million referendum in a separate question.

Voters also approved new school construction by large margins. Successful questions sailed through on election day, passing by an average of nearly 22 percentage points.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum found school districts turn to school referendums more frequently in years when the national economy is strong.

This year also saw massive turnout for the November election. Unofficial returns from the Associated Press show more than 2.6 million Wisconsin residents voted in the election, about 59 percent of the state’s voting-age population.

This surge in school spending has not gone without criticism. State Sen. Duey Stroebel, a Republican from Saukville, has signaled he’d like to curtail the use of school referendums and has been critical of construction companies that work with school districts to plan referendum-funded building projects.

“As in the previous legislative session, lawmakers next year likely will consider legislation to add to state funding for schools, raise state revenue limits, and restrict when referenda can be held,” according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum report. “These proposals all could affect the frequency and value of future referenda.”

– The Associated Press contributed to this report

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