© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

MPS seeks $252 million property tax referendum to sustain programs

A classroom at MPS's Maryland Avenue Montessori on the first day of the 23-24 school year.
Emily Files
A classroom at MPS's Maryland Avenue Montessori on the first day of the 23-24 school year.

Voters will decide in April whether to increase property taxes to support Milwaukee Public Schools.

On Thursday, the MPS Board voted in favor of placing a $252 million referendum on the spring ballot, which would allow the district to exceed state-imposed revenue limits.

Referendums are a tool increasingly used by Wisconsin school districts to make up for what advocates say is inadequate state funding.

At a time when the state of Wisconsin has a record $7 billion budget surplus, some Wisconsin school districts are facing budget deficits. Some districts are considering school closures, others are turning to taxpayers for more money.

MPS expects to have a $200 million shortfall in next school year’s budget. Administrators say without new revenue they’ll have to make cuts or close schools.

How did the district get here? MPS leaders point to state funding.

In 2021 and 2022, Republican legislators kept per-pupil funding for schools flat during a time of record inflation.

With the state sitting on an about $7 billion surplus, school districts hoped they would see a significant funding increase in 2023 and 2024. But the GOP-controlled Legislature provided a $325 per-student bump, which Republican lawmakers called generous, but is far less than the $1,500 increase that would have caught schools up with inflation.

"Throughout the state budget season, we were advocating for more funding for public schools, as were other districts across the state," said MPS Chief Financial Officer Martha Kreitzman. "And we believed with the surplus that the state has — we were shocked, I guess, that the state did not provide more funding to school districts."

Kreitzman says MPS used at least $45 million in temporary federal pandemic aid to fill in gaps left by state funding in this year's budget. But that money will run out.

MPS Board members expressed frustration with the state Legislature’s refusal to provide more to public schools.

"Because of the lack of responsibility of the folks that should be making better decisions, this is where we are," said Marcela Garcia.

The MPS Board considered three referendum options, between $244 and $262 million. It settled on the middle option: a $252 million referendum, phased in over four years. Property tax payers will pay an estimated $216 dollars more on a $100,000 home. 

Chances are good your local school district has gone directly to voters asking for more money to stay afloat. Tight state funding and restrictions on…

MPS teachers and principals spoke in favor of the referendum, saying they don’t want to see cuts to their schools.

"I support this referendum because it is a tool that we have right now," said Nic Onorato. "It will require hard work, and organization, and organized effort across the city about the opportunities our students deserve, and how the referendum will deliver those opportunities."

A few speakers were skeptical, saying MPS hasn’t been transparent enough with taxpayer dollars.

Board Member Aisha Carr said MPS needs to make hard decisions about its budget — it can’t rely on referendums.

"I need you all to be a little more transparent and honest about where we are and what needs to occur," Carr said. "Because we can ask for this amount, but what is the long-term plan, what is the sustainability plan?"

Carr abstained from the board's vote on the referendum question. One member, Darryl Jackson, voted against it, and the other seven voted in favor.

MPS last went to referendum in spring 2020. That $87 million hike was overwhelmingly approved by Milwaukee voters. Prior to that vote, MPS hadn’t gone to referendum for more than 20 years.

The 2020 referendum was about paying for new things for MPS — new salary increases for teachers, new positions in art, music and physical education.

This referendum is about sustaining what the district currently has. Voters will decide April 2.


Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
Related Content