More School Districts Asking Voters For Help Just to Continue the Basics



By Jonathon Sadowski

January 28, 2020

Spring ballot questions include 13 communities being asked to help maintain existing services

Building maintenance. Air conditioning. Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. Mental wellness. 

Things normally considered to be routine matters in a school district’s budget are up in the air in some communities. From Ashwaubenon to Elkhorn, schools are turning to area residents for help in ways beyond the new construction that is normally associated with a referendum. These districts are among those that will ask voters for extra funds on Feb. 18 and April 7. 

While most of the 55 upcoming school referenda will request money for building new facilities, upgrading existing buildings or adding services, 13 of them represent a growing need for more basic operational funding. Schools have wrestled with state-imposed revenue limits for the past quarter-century, but the struggles grew during and after the Great Recession a decade ago.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed an additional $1.4 billion in school funding for his 2020-21 budget, but Republicans whittled the boost down to $500 million. Evers used a partial veto to add an extra $70 million into the pot when he signed the budget last July, but the number was still far short of his original proposal.

Districts are putting referenda on ballots at the highest rate since the 1990s, according to an October 2018 Wisconsin Policy Forum report that found “school districts seeking referenda have been more likely to be rural districts” but also that voters were approving referenda more often. Last April, residents approved 75 percent of the referenda throughout the state.

The following referenda will appear on ballots in the coming months. 

Feb. 18

  • Edgar: recurring 3-year $650,000 referendum for “sustaining educational programming, operational and maintenance expenses.”
  • Lakeland: $3.45 million recurring referendum “to fund increasing operating and facility costs.”

April 7

  • Ashwaubenon: $3.65 million non-recurring referendum to cover student mental wellness services and operation of air conditioning.
  • Cassville: $600,00 recurring referendum for maintaining educational programs, facilities and equipment. In addition, a second non-recurring referendum of $400,000 for the 2020-23 school years and $600,00 for 2023-26. 
  • Eleva-Strum: $1.725 million non-recurring referendum “to be used for ongoing maintenance and educational programming.”
  • Elkhorn: “$200,000 beginning with the 2020-21 school year, for recurring purposes consisting of ongoing maintenance of all District facilities and technology updates.”
  • Green Lake: $4.385 million to “exceed revenue limit for four years for non-recurring purposes consisting of operational costs and capital project costs associated with facilities maintenance”
  • Nekoosa: $10 million non-recurring referendum to “maintain/improve current programs and services, add staff to support struggling families, add teacher and upgrade tech ed equipment, add teacher to help K-5 students who are not meeting grade level math learning targets, add teacher to virtual program.” 
  • Southwestern Wisconsin: $2.5 million debt issuance for “improvements to elementary playground to allow access for handicapped or students in a wheelchair along with improvements to athletic field, updated football field, baseball and softball fields and add a new track for students/community to use.”
  • Spooner: $16 million debt issuance for “district wide infrastructure, safety and security and ADA improvements. Academic and cafetorium additions at Spooner Elementary School, demolition of the small middle school gym and acquisition of related furnishings, fixtures and equipment.” 
  • Sturgeon Bay: $16.84 million debt issuance “for an addition and remodeling of Sawyer Elementary School, safety and security upgrades at the High School/District Offices, the closing of and possible removal of Sunrise Elementary, CTE area upgrades, and necessary bathrooms remodeling to become ADA compliant.”
  • Viroqua Area: $2.75 million non-recurring referendum “for educational (services) and maintaining district facilities.”
  • White Lake: $3.5 million non-recurring referendum “for operating expenses and maintenance/building projects and upgrades.”

Also on April 7, voters in the Racine Unified School District will weigh in on a referendum that would infuse the district with $1 billion, delivered in phases through the 2050 school year. The funds would go toward building modernization, land acquisition and other enhancements, the Racine Journal Times reported. The referendum comes on the heels of the district announcing plans to close nine schools in poor condition and build five new ones.




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