Balancing School Budgets Via Referendum Has Become Routine. What Happens When Voters Say No?

Jun 17, 2019

Chances are good your local school district has gone directly to voters asking for more money to stay afloat. Tight state funding and restrictions on local taxing power have pushed more than 70% of Wisconsin school districts to seek operating referendums.

These referendums aren’t about borrowing money for new buildings. They’re requests for more property taxes to sustain basic costs.

In recent elections, most referendums were approved. But what happens to the unlucky districts where voters say no?

Delafield resident Sherrie Flemming sent our Beats Me series a question about the impact of failed operating referendums. Her five children go to school in Waukesha County’s Kettle Moraine School District, where voters rejected an operating referendum in the April 2 election. 

Beats Me: What Questions Do You Have For WUWM's Beat Reporters?

“I was shocked that the referendum failed,” Flemming says. “I sit there thinking, I’ve got kids from kindergarten all the way through. What’s going to be the impact on each group and what’s gonna happen to them?”

Delafield resident Sherrie Flemming with two of her children, who attend Kettle Moraine schools. Flemming was surprised Kettle Moraine's operating referendum failed.
Credit Emily Files

In Wisconsin, school districts are handcuffed by state-imposed revenue limits that cap how much they can collect in property taxes and state aid.

The intention is to keep taxes in check. But the spending limits haven’t kept pace with rising costs. And they’re unequal — some districts have more money per student than others.

Read: Do Property Tax Limits Create An Uneven Playing Field For Wisconsin Schools?

Kettle Moraine Superintendent Patricia Deklotz says it’s hard to explain to voters.

“Property owners and taxpayers believe that the state funds all school equally,” Deklotz says. “That is not a true statement. There is great disparity in the funding of districts, even within Waukesha County.”

For example, Elmbrook and New Berlin get to spend about $1,400 more per student than Kettle Moraine and Waukesha. This is because of funding rules established in 1993. To exceed the spending caps, districts’ only option is to ask voters.  

The Kettle Moraine School District spans 10 small towns in Waukesha County and enrolls about 4,000 students.
Credit Emily Files

Deklotz says revenue limits have squeezed Kettle Moraine for a long time, forcing years of cuts in areas less visible to students.

“We’ve been able to manage through a number of different ways, including Act 10,” says Deklotz. “We’ve shifted a lot of costs to our employees. We’ve used every possible tool and strategy that has been made available to the point that we’re now out of tricks.”

So the district turned to voters, asking to raise an additional $29.8 million over the next five years in property taxes. But it failed, with 52% opposed.

Now, Kettle Moraine is making cuts that more directly affect students and families. Next year, fifth graders won’t have band or orchestra. Middle schoolers will no longer take French or German. Parents will pay more fees for athletics and other programs.

Kettle Moraine German teacher Erika Chow hugs seventh graders goodbye on their last day of class. The school district is cutting middle school German and French classes next year due to financial challenges.
Credit Emily Files

Deklotz says in future years they may have to consolidate elementary schools or make other dramatic cuts. 

“It is not sustainable. The district is not sustainable without a change in funding,” Deklotz says.  

A more extreme situation is playing out right next to Kettle Moraine in the smaller Palmyra-Eagle School District. Voters there rejected an $11.5 million operating referendum in April. 

Palmyra-Eagle has lost hundreds of students to the much-bigger Mukwonago School District through open enrollment. That loss and other financial challenges led Palmyra-Eagle to the very last resort: referendum. But it failed by a wide margin. The district’s financial situation is so untenable that the school board is moving toward dissolution.

“I unfortunately have to do a job I never expected to do, and that’s work to dissolve a school district,” says Palmyra-Eagle School Board President Scott Hoff. “We don’t have the money to keep going.”

"We don't have the money to keep going," – Palmyra-Eagle School Board President

Kettle Moraine parent Sherrie Flemming questions Wisconsin’s school funding system, which has pushed three out of every four districts to seek an operating referendum.

“To me it seems like the system is broken,” Flemming says. “Let’s say a community keeps voting no. What happens to that school district?”

School district leaders, including Deklotz, asked lawmakers studying education funding as part of a blue ribbon commission to consider making revenue limits more equitable and less constrictive.  

But while the Legislature is poised to increase school funding in the upcoming budget, deeper changes to the funding formula are less likely. 

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.

_