WATERFORD, Wis. — More than a billion dollars in taxes are at stake with dozens of school referendums on the ballot across Wisconsin.
Waterfront Union High School is one of the districts with a referendum on the April 5 ballot. Principal Dan Foster says they have been trying to answer voters questions ahead of the Spring Election.
The district is asking voters to approve a $19 million referendum, mainly for capitol maintenance for buildings throughout the district. Waterford is one of 81 school districts in Wisconsin with a referendum up for a vote, according to Dan Rossmiller from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
“You are seeing a lot of referendums where schools may have been built to accommodate the baby boom generation. Back in the 60s and 70s, schools were being built quickly to meet the growing demand and those schools are now 50 or 60 years old and in need of renovation," said Rossmiller.
Of the school districts asking to pass a referendum, around 43 percent of districts need to borrow money or “issue debt.”
The other half, 57 percent, are asking to exceed the revenue limits imposed by state law. Sara Shaw, senior education researcher at the Wisconsin Policy Forum say that money usually goes to operating expenses for a district. If those 81 referendums all pass, the total cost would be more than $1.3 billion.
“From community to community, what the money might be used for might be different, but the fact of going to referendum is the district (saying) we don’t think we can do what we need to do with the money that we are receiving from the cap we have so far. So, we are going to our local community and asking for more,” said Shaw.
Rossmiller says those revenue limits are tied to enrollment. The lower the enrollment, the less money a school district is legally allowed to spend.
“Many of the referenda on the ballot on April 5 are from smaller rural school districts that are experiencing declining enrollment and are going back to voters, because their authority to exceed their revenue limit has expired,” said Rossmiller.
Over the years, the Wisconsin Policy Forum says overall voters have become more likely to pass a school referendum. However, success varies by district. Foster says the last nine out of their 12 referendums have failed over the years. Now, they try to involve voters in every step of the process before a referendum question shows up on a ballot.
“We feel we are very good at being at the front-end of it and taking a different approach this year, to how we came up with the dollar amount and what needs to be done. Our tax payers told us this is what we would support,” said Foster.
Ultimately, it will be up to voters to decide on Tuesday, April 5 during the Spring Election.