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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Referendums Will Test Voter Willingness To Pay More For Schools

Emily Files
Wauwatosa's McKinley Elementary School was built 90 years ago. It has no elevator, which causes problems for students and teachers with mobility issues. The school is slated for replacement if voters approve a $124.9 million referendum.

In November’s election, voters in dozens of school districts will decide whether to further tax themselves to support schools. The 82 ballot measures would let 61 districts either borrow money to pay for projects or exceed state-imposed property tax restrictions, sometimes to cover basic costs.

Voters this year could approve close to $2 billion in school referendums. Jason Stein of the Wisconsin Policy Forum says depending on election results, this could be a record-setting year for referendum spending. The previous record was set in 2016 when $1.7 billion in referendums were approved. 

“In terms of the number of referenda and particularly their success rate, that has been rising since the great recession, since around 2011 or so,” Stein told Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich.

Many referendums in Southeastern Wisconsin seek voter permission to borrow money, usually to pay for capital projects.

That’s the case in Wauwatosa, where voters will decide one of this year’s most expensive referendums. Most of $124.9 million would pay to replace or renovate four elementary schools. The buildings are 80 to 100 years old, which causes maintenance and logistical hurdles.

District officials say they’ve moved entire classrooms to accommodate students with mobility issues because the old buildings do not have elevators. Emergency repairs are becoming more frequent and costly.

Wauwatosa parent Martha Handrich has firsthand experience the challenges of outdated buildings. Her children attend Wilson Elementary.

“One of my children went through a diagnosis of Leukemia,” Handrich explains. “And for the first two years she attended school here, she had a very low immune system.”

Handrich says because of the illness, her kindergarten-age daughter had to navigate around the school’s second-floor bathrooms, which have a strange quirk.

“The bathrooms require you to use the toilet seat to actually flush the toilet,” Handrich says. “There’s no handle, there’s no button. You have to raise the toilet seat up. It’s so old that that’s how you have to use the toilets.”

Handrich says her daughter (who is now healthy) had to plan her day around avoiding those restrooms. She says that experience makes her lean toward supporting the referendum, despite its steep price tag.

“A lot of people throw around, why are we investing in bricks and mortar? Bricks and mortar matter,” Handrich says. “It’s important to make sure that our school buildings are safe, that they’re adequate.”

Referendums like Wauwatosa’s, which support expensive capital projects, are similar to what you might see in other states.

But there is another type of school referendum that is directly tied to Wisconsin’s unique education funding.

Those referendums are a result of revenue caps, which were imposed 25 years ago to keep school spending in check. The caps limit the amount of money districts can collect in state aid and property tax. But some districts say the limits create an uneven playing field and are not keeping pace to meet rising costs.

“For 25 years, we’ve had these great inequities with our competition. That’s a lot of experiences that students have missed out on that could’ve been here,” says Blaise Paul, the business manager at South Milwaukee Schools. His district has been cutting positions and programs to stay within revenue limits, “trying to make the best worst decisions we can,” Paul says.

Credit Emily Files
The South Milwaukee School District is asking voters to exceed state-imposed revenue limits, in order to fund general operating expenses and new programs.

South Milwaukee is locked into a lower cap than many surrounding districts.

But now, the district is asking voters to raise taxes beyond the state-imposed ceiling. The additional $3.8 million would be phased into residents’ tax bills over six years. It would pay for general expenses, safety upgrades and new programs like full-day kindergarten for 4-year-olds.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum found referendums that exceed revenue limits are becoming more common. There are 38 of them up for voter approval Nov. 6. 

School districts have reason to be optimistic heading into the election. The most recent Marquette Law School polls show Wisconsin voters favor school spending over cutting property taxes.

Both of Wisconsin’s gubernatorial candidates say they want to increase education funding. Incumbent Republican Scott Walker recently said he wants to restore state funding to two-thirds of district costs. That echoes a pledge made by his opponent, Democratic candidate Tony Evers.

But even if the state paid for two-thirds of district costs, it wouldn’t necessarily mean more money to spend on students. Schools would still live under the ceiling of revenue limits.

Evers has proposed reforms to revenue caps, but that would require legislative approval. 

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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