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Wisconsin's presidential primary and spring general election is April 2, 2024. Here's a guide on Milwaukee-area candidates and information on how to vote.

What does a yes or no vote on the $252 million MPS referendum mean?

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley at a first day of school press conference in 2023.
Emily Files
MPS Superintendent Keith Posley at a first day of school press conference in 2023.

Milwaukee Public Schools is asking voters for a $252 million funding increase.

The question is on the April 2 ballot, along with races for local office.

Public school district funding in Wisconsin is capped by state-imposed revenue limits, which restrict how much districts receive in property tax funding and general state aid. Revenue limits determine the majority of schools districts' budgets.

The Republican-controlled state Legislature has not reliably increased revenue limits to keep pace with inflation — leaving districts to deal with increased costs without commensurate state funding.

To raise money beyond revenue limits, school districts must go to voter referendum. MPS along with 90 other school districts placed referendums on the ballot this spring. It's become an increasingly common tool for school districts to balance budgets.

What is the question?

The MPS referendum on the April 2 ballot says:

Shall the Milwaukee Public Schools, Milwaukee and Washington Counties, Wisconsin be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $140 million for the 2024-2025 school year; by an additional $51 million for the 2025-2026 school year; by an additional $47 million for the 2026-2027 school year; and by an additional $14 million (for a total of $252 million) for the 2027-2028 school year and thereafter, for the recurring purposes of sustaining educational programming, including offering career and technical education programs, attracting and retaining certified educators, and further improving art, music, physical education and language programs?

In plain language, Milwaukee Public Schools is asking voters to approve a $252 million increase to its revenue limit, which would allow the district to collect $252 million more in property taxes and state aid.

This would be an about 17% increase to MPS's $1.5 billion budget.

The funding increase would be phased in to minimize the property tax impact, starting with $140 million in the first year and building to $252 million by 2027-2028 school year. The increase is indefinite: MPS would be able to raise that $252 million as part of its funding indefinitely.

Answering yes to the question means Milwaukee property taxes would increase by $2.16 per $1,000 in property value, which equates to a $216 tax increase on a $100,000 home, or $432 increase on a $200,000 home.

It would allow MPS to increase its funding by $140 million next school year, and by $252 million by 2027. MPS says that money will be used to sustain programming, including expanded art, music, and physical education for its about 66,000 students.

Answering no to the question means Milwaukee's property tax rate for public schools would not increase next year.

MPS officials say a failed referendum could lead to 13% budget cuts at schools and 26% cuts to central office staff.

Who supports and opposes the MPS referendum?

The Milwaukee Board of School Directors voted to put the referendum on the April ballot at a January meeting.

The referendum is supported by the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), Mayor Cavalier Johnson, County Executive David Crowley, former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Voces de la Frontera, and Leaders Igniting Transformation. A vote Yes for MPS committee, spearheaded by the MTEA, is leading the campaign in favor of the referendum.

Vote Yes for MPS supporters have said if the referendum fails, the consequences for students would be "devastating." They say the strides MPS has made to increase music, art, and physical education services for students since a 2020 referendum would be at risk of getting cut.

Opponents of the referendum say MPS hasn't been transparent about how the referendum money would be spent, and how it would translate into better academic results.

The referendum is opposed by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC), City Forward Collective, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and a group called Milwaukeeans For Affordable Housing, created by Milwaukee attorney Dan Adams. The MMAC launched an ad campaign against the referendum. MPS Board Member Aisha Carr has also come out against it.

Analysts raise questions about $200 million projected deficit

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum, which analyzes the MPS budget every year, released a report raising questions about the MPS referendum.

The report digs into MPS's claim that it will face a $200 million deficit next year if the referendum fails. MPS says $45 million of the deficit is due to a projected decrease in vacancy savings — meaning the district expects to have far fewer unfilled positions that has had in past years.

Policy forum senior researcher Sara Shaw, who co-authored the report, says that would require MPS to fill almost 500 of its about 600 current vacancies.

"That seems very ambitious given the tight labor market that's been facing the district," Shaw says.

The graph below, from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows the costs that MPS says are leading to a $200 million deficit.

Shaw and co-author Rob Henken say MPS may want to update its staffing plan so it is better aligned with the number of teaching positions the district is able to fill, rather than asking for money to support positions that may remain vacant.

They also point out that MPS has lost 30% of its enrollment in the last 20 years, but hasn't made significant changes to its building footprint to better match the number of students it has.

Read more about the policy forum's report on the MPS referendum here.

This story has been updated.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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