Proposed Limits Would Make it More Difficult for Voters to Approve New Resources for Schools

October 27, 2015

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Wisconsin lawmakers have proposed a change that would make it more difficult for voters to approve additional resources for children in public schools in their districts.

The state limits the average amount each school district may spend to educate students, but voters in a district can override the spending limit by approving a referendum lifting the spending caps. Voters also determine, via referendum, whether to allow a school district to issue debt for big capital projects, such as building a new school. District residents have voted in referenda 380 times since July 2011, approving two-thirds of them.

Wisconsin lawmakers are seeking to limit the opportunities voters have to approve referenda, by prohibiting a school district from sending a referendum to voters for a period of two years after an earlier referendum, if the first referendum was rejected by voters. A school board would not be able to adopt a resolution calling for a referendum or be able to hold a referendum within 730 days of the date that the board adopted the resolution calling for the initial referendum.

This prohibition (Assembly Bill 481/Senate Bill 355) would apply even if the second referendum was unrelated to the first, unsuccessful, one. This prohibition would not apply to the time period after a successful referendum. The bill would also prohibit school districts from using a variety of other financing methods, such as short-term borrowing, in the two years after a referendum did not pass.

Imposing a window during which districts cannot ask voters to approve new resources would reduce, or at least delay, the number of successful referenda, and reduce resources for students in public schools. The state Department of Public Instruction, which collects information on school referenda, does not publish the dates on which school boards adopt resolutions calling for referenda, but does publish referendum dates. One approach to measure the potential effect of a waiting period is to identify the number of school districts in which voters pass a successful referendum within a two-year period after an unsuccessful referendum. This approach is the best possible given the information available, but somewhat overstates the future impact of a waiting period because basing that period on the dates of the authorizing resolutions gives school boards a little flexibility to avoid the problem that spring elections two years apart are sometimes less than 730 days apart.

Since July 2011, voters in 31 districts have successfully passed a total of 36 referenda within two years of turning down a referendum. These successful referenda – which might not have been allowed to go to voters when they did if the proposed change had been in effect – represent $196 million in voter‑approved resources devoted to improving Wisconsin public schools.


restrictions on referenda


The table below shows every successful school district referendum passed within two years of an unsuccessful one, starting in July 2011. These successful referenda might not have gone to voters when they did if the proposed policy change had been in place. ­

This analysis was updated January 15, 2016 to clarify that the two-year waiting period after an unsuccessful referendum begins on the date on which the school board adopts the resolution, rather than on the date the referendum is held.

Successful School District Referenda Passed Less than Two Years After an Unsuccessful Referendum

July 2011 to October 2015

Arcadia $14,000,000 Issue debt 11/05/2013 Build a new grade 5-8 school, update existing elementary building
Barron Area $3,950,000 Exceed revenue limits 08/14/2012 Reinstitute educational programs that have been cut, repair sidewalks, buy buses
Big Foot UHS $4,950,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/01/2014 Hire math and science teachers, replace school vehicles, improve support for at-risk students
Bonduel $900,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/02/2013 Purchase computers for classrooms
Brillion $2,950,000 Issue debt 04/01/2014 Improve STEM (Science, technology, engineering and math) facilities in elementary school, upgrade safety and security
Delavan-Darien $2,500,000 Exceed revenue limits 02/17/2015 Avoid eliminating teaching positions and increasing class sizes
Denmark $2,600,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/01/2014 Avoid potential cuts in support for students struggling to learn to read or to instruction for sick or disabled students
Dodgeville $1,300,000 Exceed revenue limits 11/06/2012 Address safety and security needs, remove asbestos
Durand $13,480,000 Issue debt 04/07/2015 Add on classroom and other space to elementary school, renovate science labs and tech ed area at middle/high school
East Troy Community $22,500,000 Issue debt 04/07/2015 Build new elementary school, make energy improvements at middle school, add classrooms at high school,
East Troy Community $2,200,000 Issue debt 04/07/2015 Add space for second graders in new elementary school building construction
Ellsworth Community $3,900,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/07/2015 Avoid cuts in staff, technology, maintenance, and curricular and extra-curricular offerings
Hillsboro $2,000,000 Exceed revenue limits 02/17/2015 Improve buildings and grounds safety and maintenance needs
Johnson Creek $18,900,000 Issue debt 04/01/2014 Construction of a new building for grades 5 through 12
Lake Holcombe $2,025,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/02/2013 Avoid potentially dissolving school district
Lake Mills Area $18,700,000 Issue debt 11/06/2012 Construction of a new elementary school and demolition of the old one
Linn J6 $2,800,000 Issue debt 11/06/2012 Repair and replace facilities at elementary school
Manitowoc $3,000,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/07/2015 Avoid potentially closing an elementary school or increasing class sizes
Manitowoc $1,800,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/07/2015 Upgrade facilities for several schools (roofs, exterior doors, flooring, fire alarm system, windows) and improve security
Manitowoc $1,200,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/07/2015 Update classroom technology and replace existing computers in classrooms and labs
Markesan $2,780,000 Exceed revenue limits 08/12/2014 Avoid closing schools and partial consolidation with another district
Oakfield $6,600,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/01/2014 Avoid potentially dissolving school district
Oconto Falls $1,200,000 Exceed revenue limits 08/12/2014 Purchase educational technology, repair roof, retain teachers
Oconto Falls $2,200,000 Issue debt 08/12/2014 Add new athletic facilities, improve driveways and parking lots
Owen-Withee $1,500,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/01/2014 Prevent cuts to all art, music, tech ed, agricultural education, and athletics. Avoid possibility of consolidation with another district
Parkview $1,050,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/01/2014 Purchase technology and curriculum materials, and address special education costs
Parkview $17,000,000 Issue debt 04/01/2014 Add commons area, classrooms, and gym
Prescott $3,890,000 Issue debt 02/17/2015 Add a high school auditorium
Princeton $1,350,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/07/2015 Avoid consolidation with another school district
Pulaski Community $4,370,000 Issue debt 04/02/2013 Address district-wide maintenance and remodeling projects
Rice Lake Area $20,320,000 Issue debt 11/05/2013 Update science and technology areas, renovate building systems to meet current codes, improve safety of student drop-off area
Southern Door County $390,000 Exceed revenue limits 11/04/2014 Maintain academic achievement and extracurricular programs, recruit and retain staff
Turtle Lake $1,785,000 Exceed revenue limits 11/06/2012 Purchase educational technology, improve security, obtain curriculum materials
Wabeno Area $2,250,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/01/2014 Continue programs and opportunities offered to students
Wheatland J1 $2,500,000 Exceed revenue limits 10/14/2014 Avoid increasing class sizes and possible dissolution of the district
White Lake $­­­1,500,000 Exceed revenue limits 04/07/2015 Maintain existing programs, replace elementary school roof, address deferred maintenance
Source: Analysis of figures from Wisconsin Department of Public instruction, news and web reports



  • This analysis includes referenda included in the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction online database of school referenda as of October 15, 2015, and includes referenda held on or after July 1, 2011.
  • This analysis does not include the effects of the proposed restrictions that would limit when during the year school districts may schedule referendum elections.
  • The list shows the districts in which votes have passed referenda within two years of an unsuccessful referendum. The proposal requires a two-year waiting period starting from the date the school board adopts the resolution calling for the referendum, rather than starting from the date of the actual referendum. While this analysis uses the best available data, it somewhat overstates the effect of the waiting period.