Wisconsin schools turn more often to voters for money

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A growing number of Wisconsin school districts are asking to raise taxes to cover salaries, utilities and other basic costs, and voters are approving their requests at record rates.

Some Republican lawmakers believe the referenda have given local residents greater control over spending, but education officials and many Democrats say the system has made schools less equitable at the expense of students in rural areas. They also say the need for repeated referenda has made it hard for schools and families to plan and created anxiety and instability in some communities.

Voters approved 23 of the 35 referenda Wisconsin school districts placed on April 1 ballots to raise money for operating costs. They also approved 15 of 21 proposals to borrow money for construction, technology and other improvements. The approval rates were much higher than in previous elections, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

The Oakfield School District sought and won its seventh referendum since the state instituted revenue limits in 1994. Under the system, the only way to exceed caps on state aid and property taxes is with a public vote.

When voters in the rural district about an hour northwest of Milwaukee rejected a 2013 proposal, leaders predicted the schools would quickly run through their reserves and close without a successful referenda this year. Instead, residents approved a six-year, $6.6 million referendum in a 911-405 vote.

Superintendent Sue Green said the hope is that by the time the referendum expires, state lawmakers will have done something to help small rural districts like hers.

"We have so many districts that are struggling right now, we should have done something this session," said Rep. Mandy Wright, a Wausau Democrat and former teacher who has served on a task force on rural schools.

Rural districts have been among the most affected by state revenue limits because their transportation costs are often much higher than in urban and suburban districts, which have more compact bus routes. In northern Wisconsin and areas along the Mississippi River, rural districts also can struggle because property values boosted by vacation homes mean the districts receive less state aid, even if full-time residents have low incomes. For many years, these districts were among the most likely to seek referenda.

In recent years, however, better-off school districts have turned to voters, which reflects a nationwide trend, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. The recession forced many states to cut school spending, but in areas where residents were willing and could afford it, district leaders sought referenda.

"The problem is that it does deepen the divide between the haves and the have-nots," Domenech said.

In Wisconsin, the state reduced the revenue limit increase in 2010. Then, Gov. Scott Walker cut revenue limits overall by 5.5 percent in 2012. The less than 1 percent increases approved since then have not made up the difference.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, accused Walker of "starving" public schools to achieve politically popular property tax cuts.

Larson also said voters aren't saving money overall because referenda are like the fees paid by airline passengers who bought cheap tickets. "If you want the peanuts on the plane, you've got to pay the five bucks," Larson said. "If you want to take a bag, it's going to cost extra."

Walker said his signature legislation limiting most public employees' union rights while requiring them to contribute more to health care and pension costs created savings that more than made up for the cuts.

"With the tremendous property tax relief we've put in place several times now, in the last year, if you're a school district, it makes for a compelling argument to say, 'Yeah, we can get an upgrade or we can make a change and still have a reasonable property tax levy,'" he said.

Rep. Steve Kestell, an Elkhart Lake Republican who chairs the Assembly's education committee, said putting tax increases before voters was "not a bad thing," and schools still receive the largest chunk of the state budget and property taxes.

Many districts have resisted the idea that if they want to add programs, they must find savings elsewhere, Kestell said. But educators say finding savings is tougher for smaller districts because they still have to run buses or provide classes, even if fewer students are in them.

On Washington Island, the eastern Wisconsin school district has combined some grades to cut costs, and high school students receive online instruction in foreign language. But as enrollment declines — from 68 three years ago to 59 this year — the savings aren't enough.

The district sought and received a two-year, $882,000 referenda last year and will need more to keep going, Superintendent Tim Raymond said.

The Stoughton Area School District has struggled similarly with base revenue lower than many of its neighbors, thanks to declining enrollment and high property values that bring less state aid. Voters there approved a four-year, $7 million referendum this month to avoid layoffs, program cuts and bigger classes for the 3,200 students.

"I think it's time to take a hard look at, is this the best way and the most equitable way to fund schools?" Superintendent Tim Onsager said.

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