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GOP Bill Could Limit School District Referenda

Legislation put forth by two Republican Lawmakers could limit the ability of schools to collect more money

Wisconsin is one of the states that requires school districts to ask voters about paying extra property taxes. The state set the requirement as a way to control those taxes. School districts must organize a referenda - if they want to take on construction projects over $1 million or exceed the revenue limits the state has imposed. Sometimes that means special elections. Now, there is talk among Republican lawmakers of limiting such questions to certain times of a year.

The proposal would force school districts to wait until spring elections in April or a general election in November to put a referendum before voters. Otherwise, Republican Representative Michael Schraa told a public hearing, too few people are deciding the outcomes.

“Instead of offering reasonable proposals to voters that are aligned with high turnout elections, districts often schedule referenda during low turnout primaries or special elections, with the knowledge that the electorate is paying less attention,” Schraa says.

Also, under Schraa’s proposal, if a school referendum fails, districts would have to wait at least one year before putting another on the ballot.

“If these referenda fail, districts often return election cycle after election cycle reducing the funding request each time until the desired outcome is achieved,” Schraa says.

A few of Schraa’s fellow Republicans support his plan to put school referenda on ballots during higher turnout elections, but not the year restriction between them.

Democrats lambasted the proposal, during a hearing.

Representative Sondy Pope says local voters – and not state lawmakers should decide.

“Why on earth should the legislature determine how school districts should raise and spend their money when in fact through referendum their voters have to approve it?” Pope says.

The number of school district referenda has been on the rise in recent years. Dan Rosmiller blames inadequate state funding. Rosmiller works for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“This budget cycle is the first cycle in which the legislature has allowed no increase in school revenue limits, which means this year there’s no increase in state aid in the current school year, there’s no increase in per pupil aid, which is the alternative that the legislature has lately been coming up with, and there is no increase in the revenue limit. So the only way that a school district for all intents and purposes can raise their spending in the current year is by going to referendum,” Rosmiller says.

Rosmiller says that when it comes to limiting referenda to spring or fall elections, school funding issues could get lost in the fold. He says when there are important elections such as the one for president in November of 2016, voters will probably learn less about the school referendum that they might during quieter times.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.