Lawmakers Seek to Rescind Voters’ Decisions to Raise Resources for Local Schools on an On-going Basis

Thursday, June 22, 2017 at 1:24 PM by

Wisconsin lawmakers have proposed stripping nearly $200 million in voter-approved resources from school districts across the state as part of a package of legislation aimed at making it more difficult for voters to raise taxes on themselves to pay for schools.

The state sets a budget cap for each individual school district, limiting the amount of money a district may spend to educate students from the combination of general state aid and local property taxes. Voters in a district can override the budget cap – either permanently or for a set period of time – by approving a referendum.

Lawmakers have proposed eliminating the ability of voters to permanently raise budget caps, as well as invalidating past referendums in which voters permanently raised budget caps (Assembly Bill 268/Senate Bill 195). Voters would still be able to lift budget caps on a temporary basis, but only for up to five years at a time. (For a brief description of the other proposed restrictions on school referendums, see this summary from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.)

Invalidating previously-approved referendums would force 130 school districts across the state to reduce their budgets by a combined $179 million, unless voters in those districts approved another referendum. That loss of revenue authority would go into effect five years after the legislation’s effective date.

The map below shows that districts that would have to cut their budgets under this proposal span the state, from north (South Shore, which has 200 students, would lose $1.1 million a year) to south (Kenosha, with 22,000 students would lose $2.4 million) and east (Gibraltar, with 600 students, would lose $2.9 million) to west (Pepin, with 200 students, would lose $750,000). Readers who got this post via email will need to go to our website to get full functionality of the map.

Many of the school districts that would be required to cut their budgets would be rural ones. A Wisconsin Budget Project review earlier this year found that students in rural school districts got a bigger boost from recurring referendums than students in other districts. Between 2012 and 2017, rural districts passed referendums permanently raising budget caps by $190 per student, compared to $91 per student in non-rural districts. (For more information, see Plan to Restrict Voters’ Ability to Approve School Referendums Could Hurt Rural Districts, April 2017.)

This proposal got a hearing in both the Senate and the Assembly last week, at which several school district leaders told lawmakers that “the measures would usurp local control and leave many districts — particularly small, rural, systems — in dire financial straits,” as noted in this Milwaukee  Journal Sentinel article.

School districts shouldn’t need to go to referendum to avoid making deep cuts to academic programs. Still, passing a referendum can be an important tool for taxpayers who want to ensure that their school district makes the kind of investments in students and schools that help build a strong economy. And given the state’s failure to provide regular increases in state aid and revenue authority, school districts have been forced to rely on passing referendums to maintain academic programs, and in some cases, to continue to exist. Instead of trying to make it more difficult for voters to approve new resources, lawmakers should make sure that Wisconsin school districts have the resources they need to provide students with an excellent education.

Tamarine Cornelius

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