Raising money through voter referendums has become a common tool for school districts across Wisconsin because the state restricts their taxing authority. And now the state’s largest district, Milwaukee Public Schools, plans to follow suit.
The last time MPS attempted to raise taxes through a referendum, voters shot it down. That was in 1993 and leaders were seeking $366 million for building projects. Now, more than 25 years later, the district plans to try again on the April 2020 ballot.
The adminstration is recommending a referendum amount between $82 and $94 million to "sustain and expand educational programming."
The MPS Board argues that current state funding leaves Milwaukee’s already underprivileged students at an even greater disadvantage. The board meets Thursday night to decide the referendum dollar amount and discuss what educational programming the revenue could advance.
"Our kids deserve a lot more than what we’re talking about now," school board member Bob Peterson said during a May discussion of the district’s $1.2 billion budget. "We’re talking about scraps in some of these cases. It’s really upsetting. But we have to start looking and asking for a lot more. Because our kids deserve that."
The Wisconsin Legislature did increase funding for public schools this year. But it was half of what Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed. Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Amy Mizialko says a local referendum could make up for what state lawmakers have failed to do.
"The education budget that passed was a survival budget," Mizialko said at a recent press conference to rally support for a referendum. "No child walked into a Milwaukee Public School this August and felt a significant lift in terms of what was made available to them."
MPS advocates point out that many suburban school districts have higher revenue limits, giving them greater taxing power. Some of those suburban districts have raised their revenue limits even further through referendums. Two examples are Glendale-River Hills and South Milwaukee.
At a school board meeting about the referendum, MPS students gave examples of how limited funding manifests in their daily education. Students talked about school bathrooms in poor condition, outdated technology, and a lack of mental health services. Lei’Ayla "Kidd" Austin, a freshman at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, said students seem to be given "the bare minimum."
"My school needs more funding for support staff like psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, etc.," Austin said. "A lot of us are like pretty troubled kids and that extra help would be very greatly appreciated."
To bolster the case for a referendum, MPS conducted a community survey and convened a task force of business and community leaders. District leaders outlined financial challenges for the panel, which ultimately recommended MPS pursue a referendum but did not recommend how much funding to seek. It listed eight priorities the new revenue could support:
- High-quality early childhood education
- Facilities maintenance and safety improvements
- Attracting and retaining certified educators
- Professional support staff
- Meeting educational standards for programming in library services, art, music, and physical education
- Expanding access to advanced educational programming
- Comprehensive career and technical education
- Class sizes
MPS conducted polling to gauge community support for a referendum, and the dollar figures being presented to the school board Thursday are presumably based on those findings, although the poll results have not been released.
Board member Sequanna Taylor noted during discussion last week that she’s heard concern from residents who don’t want their taxes to spike.
"Even though it’s about money it’s not just about money,” Taylor said. "We have to presently sow into our children now because they are our future. We have to make sure they have the things they need so that they can be successful."
Once the school board chooses the referendum dollar amount, it will need to determine which of its many priorities that money will support.
The board has already approved significant new expenses this year without a long-term funding plan, including employee salary schedules and new music education requirements to address inequity. It’s not yet clear if the referendum would help support those expenses.
As the details of the referendum take shape in coming weeks, MPS will have limited time to make its case to voters. The April 7 election is less than four months away.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date MPS last sought a referendum. It was 1993, not 1996.
Editor's note: MPS released its referendum number options late Wednesday. WUWM will have more details on how the numbers will work, including the tax impact, in upcoming reports.
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