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WI school referendums overwhelmingly get approved, but ones that failed have common trend

Nathan Hale High School
Posted at 5:55 PM, Apr 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-08 19:32:32-04

WEST ALLIS, Wis. — More than $1 billion in new tax money was on the line in the state of Wisconsin for schools during the Spring Election. Overall, nearly 80 percent of the 81 referendums passed. However, those that failed did seem to have a common trend.

Nathan Hale High School
Nathan Hale High School

The most expensive referendum up for a vote in the Spring Election was about the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District. The referendum asked for $149 million to consolidate down to one high school and make major building improvements. Voters said no to the proposal but school board president Noah Leigh said it does not change the situation the district is currently in.

“The CIP costs at both high schools is still needed, the declining enrollment is still happening and the reduction in state is still occurring. So all those things are going to add up to us having to make some difficult decisions soon. If we don’t come up with another plan,” said Leigh.

Waterfront Union High School Principal
Waterfront Union High School Principal Dan Foster talks about issues in classrooms that need repairs. A referendum is on the ballot. (March 31, 2022)

That sentiment was echoed in other schools in the area with failed referendums, including the Hartford Union High School District and the Waterford Union High School District .

However, a majority of school referendums on the ballot did pass. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards director of government relations, Dan Rossmiller, says approximately 8 out of 10 were approved by voters. But there was a type of referendum voters were more willing to vote “yes” on.

“The the highest passage rate of all was among referendums that asked for permission to exceed the revenue limits on a temporary basis,” said Rossmiller.

That means districts are asking to spend more than the limit set by the state. However, referendums for capitol improvement were only approved by voters 71 percent of the time according to the WASB.

“They had a harder time saying yes to referendums, asking for authority to borrow money to issue debt or construction purposes or remodeling,” said Rossmiller.

Those types of referendums were what the districts in West Allis-West Milwaukee, Waterford and Hartford were all asking voters to approve. Hartford Union High School District wanted $12 million to improve its aging outdoor facilities.

A big issue all the districts are now facing if they want a building and construction referendum is rising interest rates and inflation. The superintendent at Hartford Union High School District Jeff Walters says even if the school passed this same referendum in November, the money likely would not go as far as it would today.

“If we went back for $12 million in November, I’m concerned that we may get less than what we proposed here. We had locked in prices for bleachers for our new football and track complex and we have locked in prices for all of the turf that was part of this project,” said  Walters. “Those prices are no longer locked in and based upon the supply challenges and the increase in prices, that's a great concern of mine in regards to any future asks moving forward.”

The three area schools say they have not made any final decisions about putting up another referendum on the ballot. Wisconsin law will let the districts put up the question one more time this year, so likely November will be the next time a referendum question would be on the ballot from those districts.

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