Almost half of the school districts in Rock and Walworth counties are considering asking voters for more money before the end of the year, paving the way for what likely will be a busy summer and fall for school referendums.
Of the 23 school districts in both counties, 11 will have or are considering referendums. Most districts are still working through the specifics, but their referendums could cost anywhere from a few million dollars to $40 million and cover funding for operational expenses, staff and facilities upgrades.
Only one district will float a referendum on the Aug. 14 ballot. The others are forecasting Nov. 6 referendums.
State officials cite several factors at play in the number of local school referendums.
Some say it’s the result of a recent requirement by the Legislature that school districts place referendums on ballots only during regular elections. Others say targeting a high-turnout election, such as the fall general election, draws more input from the community.
Dan Rossmiller, government relations director for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said many districts across the state are eyeing November referendums.
The state limits how much money school districts can raise each year. If they want more, they have to ask voters. Rossmiller said some districts that have floated referendums have had to choose their priorities: maintaining educational programs or updating facilities.
Many have pitched operational referendums first to exceed their revenue caps and then held facilities referendums later, Rossmiller said.
“When I was a kid, enrollments were growing. A lot of schools were built quickly, and a lot of them are now 50 to 60 years old,” he said. “The old pool or the old auditorium is no longer adequate. They need significant work. And the economy is good. That may make them more interested in exploring facilities improvements and upgrades.”
Rossmiller said another factor for the uptick in referendums could be that November likely will be a district’s last chance to pass a referendum for a while.
The state Legislature decided this year that districts may place referendums on ballots only during regular elections. Rossmiller said waiting until 2019 to ask voters for money could hurt a district’s chances of getting its referendum passed.
“There’s no fall election next year. There’s a chance you’ll miss the snowbirds if you hit the February election,” he said. “If you want to have a good, robust discussion in your community, this is probably the time to be doing it.”
Tom McCarthy, a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction spokesman, said he doesn’t expect an unusually high number of school referendums this year. But he noted southcentral Wisconsin is “one of the hotter areas of the state right now” for referendums, likely because those districts have historically been low-spending.
So far, two districts in Rock and Walworth counties have approved holding referendums before the end of the year.
In April, the Evansville School Board approved two referendum questions: one seeking $34 million for facilities and another asking voters for $1.2 million for operational expenses. In May, the Fontana School Board approved placing a $750,000 operational expenses referendum on the Aug. 14 ballot.
Two districts are expected to hold their second referendums of 2018 in November.
The Delavan-Darien School District laid off 39 teachers and closed Darien Elementary School after a $3.5 million operational referendum failed in April. District officials likely will ask the school board this summer to approve putting on the ballot another referendum that would reopen Darien Elementary and allow the district to exceed its revenue caps.
Voters in the Beloit Turner School District denied a $26.8 million referendum by three votes in April. School board President John Turner said the board likely will pursue a similar referendum for November, and the vote to place it on the ballot could come at the board’s Aug. 13 meeting. School boards must approve resolutions to hold referendums by Aug. 28 to get them on the November ballot.
Officials in the Delavan-Darien School District have been vocal critics of the state’s school funding model. Officials say state-mandated revenue caps, approved by the Legislature in the early 1990s, have forced the district to ask taxpayers for money to maintain basic operations.
Rossmiller, who sits on the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, said other districts have echoed that concern. However, under the existing model, a district can exceed its limits only by asking voters for permission.
“We’ve had an influx of English language learners since then (1992),” Rossmiller said. “There have been a number of changes that have added some costs to school districts. The only way for districts to get out of that pattern, to increase their revenue caps and thus their spending, is by going to referendum.”
Gazette reporters Ashley McCallum and Jonah Beleckis contributed to this report.