Thursday, April 5, 2018

You thought Wisconsin schools are now fine? State referenda say otherwise

Along with Rebecca Dallet’s blowout win and the desire of the voters to keep a State Treasurer, another item on a lot of state ballots Tuesday involved funding schools. You can click on the Department of Public Instruction's referendum reporting website to see what happened in your neighborhood, and in other spots around the state.

And as Wisconsin Public Radio pointed out today, the usually-tense issues surrounding school referenda had a little extra boost this time, because new potential budget flexibilities approved earlier this year had a catch attached to them.
The new law let's low-spending districts raise property taxes without voter approval, but districts wouldn't get the money if they had a referendum fail in the last three years. Shullsburg Schools District Administrator Loras Kruser said he's relieved voters supported a $400,000 operating referendum for things like building maintenance.

"Any of those major infrastructure kinds of projects that we’re looking at here are going to cost significant dollars to be able to do that," he said. "I think at least for this first year this initial year of passing the referendum and having the availability of additional dollars we will probably take full advantage of both of those for now."

Nine school districts already had failed referendums in the last three years before this week’s election, including Howard-Suamico Schools, according to Superintendent Damian LaCroix.

"We wouldn’t have qualified for those new resources for another three years so we really had no choice but to go back to referendum and hope to get the supporting and backing of the community," LaCroix said,

Voters approved a $5.8 million operating referendum for Howard-Suamico over the next five years. LaCroix said it was yet to be determined whether the district would also take advantage of raising revenues without voter approval in addition to the operating referendum.
The stakes were raised with these referenda was because of a provision that Governor Walker insisted on, in order to support for the higher property taxes that would come from a higher per-student allowance. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau explained this part well when they discussed the bill back in February.
Under the bills, the low revenue adjustment would increase to $9,400 per pupil in 2018-19, $9,500 per pupil in 2019-20, $9,600 per pupil in 2020-21, $9,700 per pupil in 2021-22, and $9,800 per pupil in 2022-23 and each year thereafter.

Under the bills, if an operating referendum was rejected by the voters in a district during the 2015-16, 2016-17, or 2017-18 school year, the low revenue adjustment would remain at $9,100 per pupil in the three school years following the school year during which the referendum was held. If an operating referendum is held during the 2018-19 school year or any school year thereafter and is rejected by the voters, the low revenue adjustment for that district would remain at the amount for the school year during which the referendum is held for the three following school years.
But Walker and the WisGOP Legislature delayed the state budget past the start of the school year and then got into a pissing match about what to do with the sparsity aid and low-revenue issues that neither of those options ended up passing. So this led many districts to have to go to referendum because they didn’t know if additional aid and/or flexibility would be available for the 2018-19 school year, and they didn’t want to continue at the current level of (under)funding.

Hence, the 66 referendum questions on Tuesday despite the pre-election aid increases, and despite the extra risks that came from voters turning down an operating referendum. While most passed (including in the 9 districts that could have lost their per-student increases next year), there were some big “nos”, and not just for new buildings.

Remarkably, the largest operating referendum failure in the state happened in the Delavan-Darien district, where Scott Walker graduated from high school.
The referendum asked for “$500,000 per year beginning with the 2018-19 school year through the 2020-21 school year for nonrecurring purposes to pay for improvements to Borg Stadium, installation of a dual turf field for soccer/football, new track and academic and vocational areas at the high school, including culinary arts and autos, and by $3 million beginning with the 2018-19 school year for recurring purposes to pay for operating costs to maintain the district’s educational programs.”

The referendum would have increased property taxes by $203 annually on a $100,000 property during the first three years. That amount would have dropped to $173 annually afterward….

The failed referendum will mean cuts—the equivalent of 22 teacher positions, Superintendent Robert Crist said in an interview before the election.

[School board President Jeff] Scherer doesn’t know how many jobs will be lost. There could be some attrition through retirements, he said.

“We’re going to try to save where we can,” Scherer said. “There might be a couple of administrative positions that go—it can’t just be teachers.”
Delavan-Darien lost on multiple fronts with that defeated referendum. The district isn’t getting any help from the increases in sparsity aid that were part of that recently-signed bill, because the district has too many students and is too compact. And the failed referendum makes Delavan-Darien ineligible to raise its revenue above its current $9,441 per-student level in the year after next. So now it’ll be stuck at the lower per-student revenue level for another 2 years after that, due to a change that 1986 Delavan-Darien alum Scott Walker insisted on.

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?

Another referendum loss was in the Maple school district in the Northwest part of the state, where voters refused to pay for a referendum that DPI says would have gone to maintain services, and update shop equipment. And just like with Delavan-Darien, Maple has too many students to qualify for sparsity aid, and is locked out of the low-revenue flexibility in future years. Of course, the advanced vocational education that Walker allegedly wants schools to emphasize, but those things require ACTUAL MONEY to implement, instead of nice press events and public speeches.

It illustrates how a lot of school districts throughout Wisconsin are still underfunded after 7 years in Fitzwalkerstan, despite what Walker’s and WisGOP’s PR push tries to tell you. And it’s telling that even with the one-time increases in funding before this year, that a lot of schools still felt the need to go to referendum just to stay afloat. With a sizable state budget deficit looming for 2019 due to the pre-election handouts from Scott Walker and the WisGOP Legislature, don’t expect these budgetary pressures on Wisconsin’s K-12 schools to subside, no matter how much Walker insists on using tax dollars to tell us otherwise.

Those strains will get worse unless this state boots Walker and WisGOP from power this November, and replaces them with a governor and legislators that are serious about funding education instead of using it as a “divide and conquer” political tool. Tuesday’s vote indicated that voters may well be in the mood to do that, but we still have to ward off 7 long months of an onslaught of BS before we get there.

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