MPS Seeks $87 Million Operating Referendum

Dec 19, 2019

In April, Milwaukee Public Schools will ask voters to approve a property tax referendum for the first time in 26 years.

The school board decided Thursday night to ask for $87 million in additional revenue. This would allow the district to exceed state-imposed property tax caps.

READ: MPS To Consider Referendum For Educational Programming

Before the board started its referendum discussion Thursday, members heard from two Rufus King High School students. The students shared their experiences participating in the school’s drumline.

“Walking off after a performance is an unmatched feeling of pride," Kamor Rowe said. "And seeing our hard work pay off is one of the most rewarding parts of drumline. Drumline leaves you with friends for life and a sense of fulfillment.”

The students’ comments weren’t directly related to the referendum. But the acclaimed music program at King is one example of what MPS leaders hope the referendum could support and expand throughout the district.  

READ: Teachers Call On MPS To Address Music Education Disparities

“I’ve been working diligently to try to get music back in the north side of Milwaukee schools,” board member Marva Herndon said, explaining the need for more funding. “They’re missing art. They’re missing librarians. We’ve got large class sizes. They’re lacking social workers, psychologists.”

MPS Board members Marva Herndon, Larry Miller and Tony Baez listen to discussion about a potential referendum Dec. 19.
Credit Emily Files

Limited state funding — along with restrictions on raising new revenue through the property tax — have prompted many Wisconsin school districts to seek voter referendums. The MPS board says it is now time for Milwaukee to take that step.

Board member Annie Woodward voted against advancing the $87 million referendum amount, saying she was not ready. But the vote to approve putting the referendum on the April ballot was unanimous. 

The referendum would be phased in over four years until it reaches $87 million in 2023. The tax impact, according to officials, would be about $160 each year for every $100,000 of assessed property value.

The ballot language says the money is for “sustaining and expanding educational programming, including offering more career and technical education programs, attracting and retaining certified educators, and expanding art, music, physical education, and language programs.”

MPS commissioned a poll of likely voters, which concluded the district would have the best chance of passing a referendum if the tax impact stayed under $200 per $100,000 of assessed value.

MPS Legislative Policy Manager Chris Thiel emphasized that even though MPS is a high-poverty district with great need, many surrounding districts have higher revenue limits. That means they can raise more money per student in property taxes and general state aid.

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

“All students are not created equal in the state of Wisconsin,” Thiel said.

Opponents argue that MPS receives significant funding outside of state revenue limits and that more money doesn’t necessarily lead to better student outcomes.

The school board plans to hold meetings in January to better define the educational programs the referendum would support. Voters will decide whether the district makes a convincing case on April 7.

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