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Wisconsin Schools Borrow At Record Level In 2016

Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance Found Voters Approved A Record Amount Of Borrowing Referendums Last Year

Don Ryan/AP Photo

Wisconsin voters approved $1.35 billion in borrowing referendums for public schools last year, the largest amount in more than 20 years.

A new report from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance found voters approved more than three-quarters of referendums on state ballots, the highest approval rate since the early 1990s.

Voters also approved more referendums for school districts to exceed the state’s revenue limit.

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“We have this interesting sort of dichotomy between declining enrollment districts having to go to revenue cap referendum to get voter exception to the revenue limits and you have a borrowing referendum in a district that had growing enrollment,” said Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Berry said the last period of school construction projects was during the 1990s, so buildings are starting to need regular maintenance and updates.

If school districts are borrowing on a 20-year basis, they may be paying off old debt,” he said. “If they replace that with new debt, they’re in a position where they can say to the taxpayer, ‘Well, we’re borrowing money to build or restore building X and yet it isn’t going to cost you anything more,’ and yet the asterisk is otherwise their property taxes would have gone down with the old debt going off the rules.”

West Salem was one of the 54 school districts that had a referendum approved. They asked to borrow money for four different renovation projects, after voters failed to pass similar referendums in 2014 and 2015.

“Interest rates and the economy are what drives these things,” said Troy Gunderson, superintendent of West Salem School District. “If the economy is bad and the interest rates are high, people won’t vote yes. So it’s kind of a combination of a lot of things that caused that spike.”

Gunderson said the district surveyed residents in the district to find out what they wanted to see out of the referendum projects, ensuring the school district would have public support.

According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, school districts have already asked for $708 million in borrowing referendums on this year’s February and April ballots.