Wisconsin voters gave school districts the authority to issue the highest amount of debt amid the highest rate of referenda passage since 2000, a report from a policy research organization showed.
Of 81 school construction referendums across the state, 64 referendums or 79% passed after the Nov. 8 midterm election, the Wisconsin Policy Forum reported. In 57 successful referenda, voters allowed school districts to issue up to nearly $2.1 billion in debt, the report adds. In sheer dollar amount, no other referenda have surpassed $1.8 million since 2000.
Voters allowed up to $506.1 million in recurring and non-recurring taxes for district operations for the next few years, the policy forum report showed.
Researchers said the number of school construction items on the ballot and rate of passage were comparable to rates in 2000: In 2022, ballots had the second-highest number of questions in any year since 2000 and the third-highest overall passage rate since the same year. In 2022, passage rates were 80.1%, and rates were 85.6% in 2020 and 89.7% in 2018.
School districts can only collect a certain amount of revenue from local property taxes and state general school aids, both of which state law limits, the report said. District officials turned to voters to decide whether districts can raise property taxes beyond state caps to fund capital projects or raise ongoing spending on education on a permanently recurring or temporarily nonrecurring basis.
Steve Summers, executive director of operations at the Waunakee School District, said the district’s operational referendum question was driven by a “disconnect” between rising costs and frozen state funding, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
The number of school districts asking voters to approve referendums this fall was evidence that many places “deciding that the current limits are not adequate for their needs,” Wisconsin Association of School Boards director of government relations Dan Rossmiller told the Wisconsin State Journal.
The latest state budget increased general school aid by $381.9 million in the current 2022-23 school year without authorizing an increase in per pupil revenue caps per district, the policy forum said. Those two actions combined will provide more state money to school districts but prevent them from spending it, causing substantial downward pressure on local property taxes, the report added.
The referendums asking for the most money which passed in November were the Waunakee Community School District with $175 million, the Appleton Area School District with $129.8 million, the Menasha Joint School District with $99.7 million, the Eau Claire Area School District with $98.6 million and the Green Bay Area School District with $92.6 million. Referendums usually asked for money to improve currently existing school facilities or build new ones.