Dozens of rural school districts ask voters for money through referendums

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Astead Herndon/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Monday, March 31, 2014

The language on the ballot in Tomah on Tuesday belies the urgency felt in this rural, central Wisconsin school district.

“Shall the Tomah Area School District, Jackson, Juneau and Monroe Counties, Wisconsin, be authorized to exceed the revenue limit ...by $300,000 for the 2014-2015 school year, by $750,000 for the 2015-2016 school year; and by $1,500,000 for the 2016-2017 school year, for nonrecurring purposes consisting of sustaining educational programs?”

Tomah Superintendent Cindy Zahrte puts it more simply:

Do voters want local children to have an adequately funded education, with access to high-quality teachers and learning tools?

That's a critical question in the spring election Tuesday for at least 26 rural school districts, where ballot measures will ask residents to approve a boost in property taxes above state-set limits — not for new buildings or technology, but to keep regular operations running.

In Rock County, the Parkview School District is seeking $350,000 in each of the next three years to soften projected deficits. That's in addition to the district asking for $17 million for building renovations.

In Walworth County, voters in the Big Foot Union High School District are being asked to approve $990,000 per year for five years to enhance programming, provide a safer environment and maintain and enhance facilities.

In the Delavan-Darien School District, the school board is asking voters for permission to exceed state revenue limits by $2.1 million every year starting in the 2014-15 school year to cover ongoing expenses.

The reason for so many operational referendums comes from a cascade of forces that have been acting on Wisconsin's rural schools for years: declining enrollment, decreased state funding and increasing costs for everything from transportation to building maintenance to special education.

Then the controversial Act 10 legislation signed by Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 decreased state aid but restricted districts from raising property taxes to make up for the budget shortfall. Instead, the legislation allowed districts more flexibility to get savings from employees, such as by changing health care plans or adjusting salaries.

But rural leaders say they've done all that.

Now they're forced to ask their communities directly for more tax money to operate through a host of messy and divisive ballot questions.

And those referendums often don't pass.

“I've started to have quite a few sleepless nights,” Zahrte said. “You wake wondering if there's anything else you can do.”

Zahrte says enrollment and fiscal pressures have combined to leave Tomah with a $700,000 deficit.

A rejection of the measure Tuesday would result immediately in the layoff of science and math teachers, as well as cuts to childhood education, alternative education, counseling, library and secretary staff, she said.

The district already has made big changes to trim costs.

It has four principals for seven elementary schools. Zahrte said she's cut $700,000 in regular staff positions since 2008. The district has audited its energy-saving techniques, studied ways to make transportation more efficient and learned to write private grants.

Zahrte adjusted teacher salaries and cut fringe benefits under Act 10 to save the district $2.2 million.

“We've done as much as we can,” she said.

Some district leaders say they have it even worse.

Sue Green is the new superintendent of the Oakfield School District in Fond du Lac County.

Last year, the community rejected an operational referendum.

Green said that forced the district to make cuts of about $1 million, or about a sixth of the total budget.

The Oakfield district also has frozen its teachers' salaries.

On Tuesday, when the district once again asks the community to approve a tax hike — raising an additional $2.2 million in taxes over six years — the stakes are even higher.

Green understands what lawmakers were thinking when they passed laws that reduced funding for schools: If the districts wanted more money from taxpayers, they could ask for it directly in the form of a referendum.

“But it's tough,” Green said. “There can be a taxpayer who thinks we mismanaged our funds or that we didn't do everything right. But we did. We did nothing wrong.”

Green said if voters reject the referendum again, there's no more space for cuts.

“We don't want to be the first school district to be forced to close because of a failed referendum,” she said.


Understanding the financial crunch facing some districts requires a quick review of the state's school-funding formula.

In 1993, a state law capped the amount of revenue school districts could raise from property taxes and state aid. The idea, says Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, was to limit taxes on state residents and tie school district revenue to student enrollment and the rate of inflation.

The inflation adjustment ranged from a revenue-limit increase of about $200 to $300 per-pupil annually until the 2009-'10 school year, when the Legislature reduced that increase because of the recession.

Then, Walker's first state budget, passed in 2011, dramatically decreased state aid. To restrict property taxes from replacing the drop in school aid, the governor also reduced districts' revenue limit authority — the combined amount they're able to raise in local property taxes and state general school aid — by 5.5%.

Districts used the “tools” of the law to seek savings from employees. The law curtailed union bargaining, so districts didn't have to negotiate such changes.

Fast forward to 2014, and the practical effect for many school districts losing enrollment rapidly is that the small revenue-limit increase allowed now can't keep up with expenses, Rossmiller said.

“Districts are actually getting less money than they were getting a year before, so to maintain their student programs, even with a smaller student base, they need to find a way to raise more funds,” Rossmiller said. “And the only way to do that is through referendum. It's become a necessity.”


Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, formed a legislative group in the fall of 2013 to explore issues in rural schools and recommend actions. The group was led by chairman Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander.

At the request of Vos, Swearingen said, the bipartisan group of Assembly lawmakers avoided tackling fiscal issues and merely ensured administrators were “combining resources and using best practices.”

But many Democrats said they recognized the financial issues in rural schools as dire. And they developed several bills to address them.

But ultimately, those bills were not scheduled for public hearings or votes by leading Assembly Republicans in the spring session.

Zahrte said the bills “would have helped Tomah tremendously.”

Swearingen told the Journal Sentinel in March that “all signs pointed to 2015” for significant action in the Legislature on school funding measures.

But Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, said he's doubtful Republican leaders will allow measures to move forward that would bring additional money to public schools, rural or urban.

--Gazette staff contributed to this report

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