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Wisconsin Policy Forum: School Referendums Approved Break Records In 2018

More Than $2B Approved This Year Through November Election

Kids in a classroom
Tom Woodward (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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

The Wisconsin Policy Forum says in a report Tuesday that 90 percent of referendum questions have been approved this year through the November election. The 2018 total amount approved is more than $2 billion.

The previous record for highest dollar amount approved was nearly $1.8 billion in 2016.

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The report finds approval of school referendums generally increases when the economy is good, said Jason Stein, the Wisconsin Policy Forum’s research director.

“Obviously the economy has been relatively good and that is clearly a factor,” Stein said. “I think there’s also the factors of what’s happening locally with these schools and how voters perceive their needs.”

School districts ask voters for more funding and permission to take on more debt for a variety of needs. The asks can come as a result of overdue building improvements or the need to maintain or adjust student services as some districts see changes in enrollment.

“There may also be some impact on how voters perceive the overall school funding environment and what priority they place on funding their schools versus paying lower property taxes,” Stein said.

According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, there were 82 questions for more than $1.4 billion in debt and revenue increases on the November ballot across 61 school districts in Wisconsin. Voters approved 94 percent of them in 57 districts, worth nearly $1.4 billion.

Still, a good economy is not the only factor that could change the frequency at which voters approve referendums.

Decisions to increase state funding for schools and raising revenue limits could come into play with a new governor taking office.

“But it is worth noting that in the current budget there was a healthy increase in schools and we still saw record numbers of school referendums,” Stein said. “So some increase in state aid is not necessarily a guarantee that you won’t see some additional referendums.”

Ron Martin is president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. He said he’s not surprised by the success of these measures.

“I think people also realize it’s an economic boost in Wisconsin if we put money into our public schools,” he said.

Still, Martin said it’s disheartening that districts have had to go to voters for help, adding the solution is to boost state aid and the problem with these ballot measures is that there are clear losers among the districts that don’t see the funding requests approved.

“Kids are being hurt in the fact that they’re not getting the same kind of resources that districts that do pass referendums are getting because for whatever reason the community has rallied around the referendum,” he said.

In his 2019-’21 state budget request, then gubernatorial candidate, and now Gov.-elect Tony Evers promised to increase school funding by 10 percent.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, to include quotes from WEAC’s Ron Martin.