Monday, April 2, 2018

The other big item on tomorrow's ballot- school referenda

In addition to the Supreme Court election tomorrow and numerous local government offices, one other big thing on the ballot tomorrow is a sizable amount of school district referenda (you can click on the Department of Public Instruction’s site to take a look at all of them). What’s doubly intriguing about all of those referenda this year is that it comes on the heels of our Fair Governor spending a lot of tax dollars not only to add funds to public schools ahead of the 2018 elections, but also to make taxpayer-funded photo ops at many districts around the state in recent months.

Most of this added K-12 school spending was based in additional per-student aid, as part of the governor’s pre-election budget. A couple of other potential school aid increases were shot down during budget deliberations, but Walker and the GOP Legislature reversed themselves as the November elections came nearer, leading the bill to being passed in near-unanimous votes by the Legislature earlier this year, and it was signed by Walker 3 weeks ago.

The new law gives $6.45 million more next year to some smaller, rural schools in the form of the state’s sparsity aid program, and loosened up revenue caps for certain districts that had their per-student spending limited due to the state’s revenue cap formula, letting property taxes go higher without a referendum, if a district’s board wanted to (you can click here to see which districts are/aren’t affected).

But there’s a catch with that revenue cap change, and it could mean some Wisconsin districts will be handcuffed if their referendum fails on Tuesday.
However, an exemption in the bill, championed by the governor, bars districts that have a failed referendum any time in the past three years from implementing the automatic tax increases.

Walker has said the exemption promotes accountability to taxpayers by preventing taxes from going up in communities where voters have rejected such moves in recent years.

But it also sets up a sticky scenario for 12 low-spending districts with referendums on the ballot [Tuesday]. …

Those districts are: Adams-Friendship, Almond-Bancroft, Benton, Ellsworth, Kiel, Manitowoc, Markesan, Merrill, Mondovi, Randall J1, Shullsburg and Westby.

If their referenda fail, those districts would not only miss out on whatever they’re asking voters to approve, but up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in new tax revenue authorized by the new law, according to an analysis by the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget office.
That’s quite a double-whammy, and some of those schools are making some big-money asks, including $3.5 million a year in Manitowoc, $2.5 million in Merill, $1 million in Ellsworth, $950,000 in Adams, and $8.4 million over 10 years in Kiel.

Looking at that story sure makes me wonder how many of those referenda would have been called if Walker and the Legislature had worked together to put these increases in the state budget back in September, instead of panicking ahead of a tough GOP election and reinstating it 6 months later. But as usual, these WisGOPs aren’t much for connecting one prior decision to the next when it comes to policy, or in caring about what happens to local governments as a result of their stunts.

These referenda are also an interesting wild card for turnout in the Supreme Court and local elections tomorrow. One such referendum in Sussex helped explain why Waukesha County had such high turnout in February’s primary, and big-population areas like Howard-Suamico, DC Everest, River Falls, and La Crosse join Manitowoc in having big-money facility and operating questions.

We’ll see if this trend of large amounts of school referenda in recent years starts to fade with both the aid increases, and because of a provision in the state budget that limits schools to 2 referendum questions a year, and limits the dates those referenda can take place. But the continued large amount of referenda (66 questions on Tuesday) shows that one pre-election bump by the Governor hasn’t come close to filling in the gaps of 6 prior years of state cuts to K-12 education and limits on property taxes to make up the difference.

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