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Wisconsin School Property Tax Referendums Are ‘Resilient’ Amid Economic Upheaval, Political Division

Emily Files
Student backpacks line the halls at a Milwaukee elementary school in 2019.

It’s become common in Wisconsin for school districts to go directly to voters to ask for increased property tax funding. These school referendums have seen high approval rates in recent years.

You might think that the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic devastation would reverse the trend, but that is not what has happened this year.

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A new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum shows that school referendums this fall and spring were overwhelmingly accepted.

Out of 51 referendums on ballots Nov. 3, 43 were approved – an 84% passage rate.

“They’ve shown the ability to be quite resilient to whatever is going on with the economy,” says Policy Forum data and research analyst Ari Brown. “Voters really show favor towards these referenda despite their direct impact being an increase in property taxes at a time when households may be able to afford less.”

The referendums also transcend political divides, gaining approval in both Democrat and Republican-leaning communities.

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“This is potentially a topic that does transcend at least federal partisan politics,” Brown says. “We noted that 30 of the 43 referenda that passed, passed in districts that voted in favor of the Republican presidential candidate.”

Brown says this demonstrates that no matter the politics of the area, public schools have broad support.

“Because of how visible and integral [schools] are to communities, I think a lot of people who might not be willing to raise their taxes to fund a new library or increased police services, they still might be able to turn around and justify, ‘my school district is really in need of this revenue,’” Brown says.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.