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

Almost All School Referendums Approved In Wisconsin Midterms

Emily Files
South Milwaukee School District's referendum, asking voters for permission to exceed state-imposed spending limits by $3.8 million, was approved with 55 percent of the vote.

It’s a record-breaking year for school referendums in Wisconsin. Unofficial results show voters backed 94 percent of ballot questions in Tuesday’s election, including all in southeastern Wisconsin.

Counting elections earlier in 2018, more than $2 billion in school referendum spending has been approved this year. That surpasses the previous record of about $1.7 billion in 2016.  

The overwhelming success rate indicates many voters are willing to pay higher property taxes for local schools.

In some cases, the money will fund major building projects. Wauwatosa is an example: a $124.9 million referendum was up for voter approval to pay for four new elementary school buildings.

The aging buildings are not accessible and are expensive to maintain, said Wauwatosa School District Communications Director Keller Russell in an October interview. “The kids are safe. It’s just a matter of, is this an ideal learning environment?” Russell said. "And that’s what the community has to decide."

The community decided in favor of the referendum. Other area school districts where facilities referendums were approved include Oak Creek-Franklin, Waukesha, Pewaukee, Greendale and Cedarburg.

But in some cases, the ballot questions would not pay for expensive new buildings. In places like South Milwaukee and Fox Point, voters approved revenue limit referendums.

That enables the school districts to raise property taxes beyond state-imposed caps. Revenue limit referendums are sometimes school districts’ last resort to fund basic operating costs, in place of cutting staff or programs.

“School districts are going to referendum in record numbers because the state has squeezed them so hard that they have no choice,” said Julie Underwood, UW-Madison professor and education policy analyst, in an interview before the Nov. 6 election.

She said the ballooning number of referendums is indicative of flaws in Wisconsin’s education funding system. State Superintendent and Governor-elect Tony Evers blamed Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature for the increasing number of school referendums.

“State leaders in Madison aren’t getting the job done,” Evers said in his September ‘State of Education’ address. “So, the people of Wisconsin are doing it themselves.”

Evers was narrowly elected governor on the same day that school referendums were approved at an unprecedented rate. But it wasn’t 100 percent.

Referendums failed in five districts. Leaders in the tiny, northern Wisconsin Goodman-Armstrong Creek district found out that their revenue limit referendum was rejected by just 15 votes.

The district may go to voters again in April, said Goodman-Armstrong Creek Superintendent Allison Space. She said without a boost in property taxes they’ll have to make cuts to programs or consider consolidating with another school district.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that voters approved $1.7 million in school referendum spending in 2016. It was $1.7 billion. The story has been updated.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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